WINNIPEG – The woman who raised a teen girl found dead in a river after she kept returning to the streets wants changes to Manitoba child welfare to prevent chronic runaways from ending up in grave danger.
Kids who run away constantly while in government care have become a recurring problem due to finite provincial resources and strict limitations under federal law.
Tina Fontaine was being exploited and had repeatedly run away from hotel rooms and a Winnipeg youth shelter in the weeks before her death in August 2014. She was last seen walking away from a hotel room where she had been housed.
Her body, wrapped in a duvet cover and weighed down by rocks, was found in the Red River after she rejected pleas from a social worker to stay in for the night.
“I don’t know what else we can do to keep a child like Tina (safe) — and there are so many other Tinas out there that just keep running,” said Thelma Favel, Tina’s great-aunt, who raised the girl on the Sagkeeng First Nation.
“I wish there was something they could do to keep them safe — maybe a placement where they’re not allowed to leave, for a period of time anyway, just to get some kind of counselling for them to show them what could happen to them out there.”
The Youth Criminal Justice Act forbids placing kids in custody as a way to protect them. People can be locked up for a few days in facilities for severe drug addiction or extreme mental-health crises, but locking kids up in a foster or group home is forbidden.
In Manitoba, there are group homes deemed “semi-secure” that have extensive monitoring and programming, but the goal is a quick transition to more freedom.
Manitoba’s children’s advocate, Daphne Penrose, suggested there is a need for high-security placements in some cases.
“I believe there is a place for children who are so exploited and on the risk of imminent danger when they are out, those kids need help until they can make safe decisions for themselves,” she said.
Penrose, whose office is investigating what services were provided to Tina, said kids who are running away are often not doing so voluntarily.
“You’re dealing with kids who oftentimes owe people money or are threatened to get out there to work … or their pimps are making them work,” she said.
“If you don’t see it from that perspective … then you see them as chronically running away because they want to leave, and that’s not the case.”
She said mental-health supports and addictions treatment must be improved and there needs to be a crackdown on child exploitation.
The issue of runaways was highlighted in a recent inquest report into the death of an Indigenous teen who hanged herself in a jail after spending her life in care. She had run away from 14 foster placements and was being sexually exploited. Her identity is protected under a court-ordered publication ban.
The inquest report by provincial court Judge Shauna Hewitt-Michta said the girl was forced to work in the sex trade by a gang and “repeatedly ran from foster placements, including a specialized placement in Winnipeg for sexually exploited youth, to resume work in the sex trade.”
After she took her own life, one of the men who exploited her was sentenced to 15 years in prison for filming child pornography and running an underage prostitution ring.
Cora Morgan, the First Nations family advocate for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said there are other reasons kids want to run away.
“When they come into care, they’re taken from everything they know — their home, their family, their friends, their school. Every connection that they have in the world, they lose all of it.”
Manitoba Families Minister Scott Fielding said the provincial government is working to reform child welfare, in part by focusing more on supporting families before children are apprehended.
“We believe better assessments and earlier planning will result in less children in care and shorter duration in care,” Fielding said in a written statement.