Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cracks in the system

Phoenix inquiry sparked change — but there are still holes big enough for a 15-year-old to fall through

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Demonstrators stand at Portage and Main Friday afternoon holding placards demanding the Harper government call an inquiry into missing and slain aboriginal women.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Demonstrators stand at Portage and Main Friday afternoon holding placards demanding the Harper government call an inquiry into missing and slain aboriginal women. Photo Store

OTTAWA -- Tina Fontaine was about as vulnerable a person as you could imagine.

Just 15 years old and alone on the streets of a strange city.

She was estranged from her mother, and was being raised by her great-aunt since she was four.

Her father was slain in 2011. Those responsible pleaded guilty just a few months before Tina was killed.

Tina was wracked with grief over his death and the recent plea deal sent her into a tailspin.

Tina's aunt, Thelma Favel, tried to get her help, seeking counselling for the girl from child welfare agencies and victim services. She was denied.

In July, after Tina ran away from home several times, her aunt again sought help from CFS, this time asking that Tina be temporarily placed in a foster home.

That is how Tina ended up in foster care in Winnipeg.

Less than a month later, her body was pulled from the Red River, wrapped in plastic.

She is the latest statistic on a long list of kids in care who ended up dead.

In the last three years, 34 Manitoba kids have been slain or committed suicide while in the care of or receiving services from a child welfare agency. Fontaine is the second child with an active child protection file to be slain this summer. Twenty-one-month old Kierra Elektra Star Williams was slain on the Peguis First Nation July 17.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak said Fontaine's story, and that of most other aboriginal kids in the child welfare system, is a tragic reality of a system designed to react to problems, not prevent them.

"The system is designed right now in a totally reactive way," he said.

In Manitoba, there are nearly 10,000 kids in child welfare agencies right now -- more than 70 per cent of them are aboriginal. Almost all who have ended up dead are First Nations.

Much has changed in Manitoba since the killing of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair in 2005. The child-welfare budget has doubled. There are more social workers, a new emphasis on services, and a change of wording in the law to make child safety the top priority in child-welfare decisions.

But much has not changed, and there are still cracks in the system large enough for a 15-year-old girl to fall through, in just a matter of weeks. Wab Kinew, First Nations broadcaster, musician and advocate, said it's time governments listened to the pleas for help to do things differently and to better fund services on reserves. For years the federal government has been chastised for not funding child welfare services on reserve at the same level provincial governments fund off-reserve kids.

Ottawa is fighting a human rights complaint from the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society over the disparity. It is said to be a major cause in the high rate of aboriginal kids taken into care and the lack of ability for CFS to help kids such as Tina before they hit a crisis point.

"Would more money have saved Tina Fontaine?" asked Kinew. "I don't know."

But he said Fontaine was the most vulnerable type of person so it's obvious offering less money to programs that can help kids like her didn't help.

In the months before Tina was put in foster care, her aunt knew the teen was struggling and tried to get her help, contacting local social workers and provincial victim services. She wasn't able to get anywhere.

In July, after Tina didn't return home again, the aunt once more called on CFS to help, this time looking for a temporary foster placement.

Sources told the Free Press Tina was last seen when she was a patient at a Winnipeg hospital, though it's unclear why she was being treated. She walked away from the hospital Aug. 8. She was reported missing Aug. 9. The police asked the public for help to find her on Aug. 13. She was found dead Aug. 17.

She habitually ran away from the Winnipeg foster home and it is also believed Tina had been introduced to drugs recently.

Relatives say the death of her father -- Eugene Fontaine -- changed her, and the recent court case is what set off the pattern of running away from home. Two of Eugene Fontaine's friends pleaded guilty to manslaughter in May. Fontaine was brutally beaten to death in Sagkeeng First Nation on Halloween 2011. Tina had a tattoo bearing his name, date of birth and date of death.

It was how her body was identified.

Her ashes will be scattered on his grave today in Sagkeeng, 120 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

The facts of what happened in the final weeks of Tina's too-short life may come to light if a suspect is caught and put on trial. But the findings of the investigation the Manitoba Children's Advocate is required to conduct of CFS involvement in Tina's life will likely never be released.

Making those reports public was one of the recommendations Justice Ted Hughes made last January, as a result of the inquiry into the Phoenix Sinclair killing.

Her death at the hands of her mother and stepfather, just months after CFS closed Phoenix's case file, sparked a massive introspection of Manitoba's child welfare system, including one of the most extensive public inquiries in the province's history.

Among the major faults of the system laid bare were the disproportionate number of aboriginal children in care, the difficulty families on reserve have accessing services, and the emphasis the system puts on keeping children with family members instead of focusing on safety.

Inquiry commissioner Hughes made 62 recommendations to government, including making the Office of the Children's Advocate an independent office.

Ainsley Krone, communications officer at the Office of the Children's Advocate, said if the government heeded that recommendation it would give the children's advocate more leeway to make decisions, rather than simply advising the minister and waiting for someone else to decide what to do.

In particular, the children's advocate wants to be able to decide whether to release investigation reports. The office conducts more than 60 reviews a year of children who die either in care, or within a year of receiving child-welfare services.

Last year, 20 of those reviews looked at kids who died while in the care of child welfare agencies, including one who was slain and four who committed suicide.

The results of those investigations are given only to the minister of family services, the chief medical examiner and the provincial ombudsman.

"We want to be able to release more information to the public," said Krone. "Change is only going to come when there is more pressure from the public."

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross, who was a social worker prior to getting involved in politics, would not commit the government to giving control over what information is released to the children's advocate.

"I understand Manitobans want to know what the recommendations are and they want to know we have implemented them," she said. "But we are communicating with the Office of the Children's Advocate and the department to try to find a balance."

Ross insists releasing the reports could jeopardize the privacy of other children or family members.

She said half of Hughes' recommendations are in the process of being implemented and the other half are being looked at.

Nepinak said releasing more information, from her family and the police, has helped give Tina's death the scrutiny it deserves.

"The public was not denied access to this tragedy," he said. "Her death has reached a broader public base."

The result, he hopes, will be pressure to make broad changes to a system that fails so many children.

"Nobody wants to live in a city known for (the brutal slaying of a teenage girl)," he said.

Kinew said improvements have been made when it comes to police and media response when an aboriginal woman goes missing or is slain.

"The fact the police were there at the vigil, that was a sign of changing attitudes," he said. "It's a good start."

For Kinew, the first steps should be proper funding and programming, giving social workers the time they need to get to know a teen such as Tina, figure out what makes them tick, and then get them into programs that will help. Whether that's a sweat lodge or horse therapy or sports, "there are a million different approaches out there," said Kinew.

It also, said Kinew, means keeping kids in their communities.

"Sagkeeng is a beautiful place," he said. "If there was the system in place to keep her there, there is a good chance she would still be alive."

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2014 A6

History

Updated on Monday, August 25, 2014 at 1:45 PM CDT: Her ashes will be scattered on her father's grave.

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