September 20, 2019

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Justice minister says system changing after Tina tragedy

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/3/2019 (190 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On the heels of an independent investigation that exposed systemic barriers victims of crime face within the justice system, Manitoba's justice minister says the department has made operational changes to its victim services branch and still has "more work to do".

The provincial government hasn't promised to implement the five recommendations from the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, whose office spent the past year intensively examining the short life of Tina Fontaine through records from child-welfare agencies, police, health care and addictions detox facilities and her autopsy report.

On Wednesday afternoon, Minister Cliff Cullen addressed the recommendations for the justice department in detail for the first time, more than 24 hours after the public release of the report and more than two weeks after the justice department was given advance access to the report's victim-services-related findings.

It detailed the barriers Tina and her family faced as victims of crime within the justice system after her father, Eugene Fontaine, was beaten to death in 2011. The woman who raised Tina, Thelma Favel, was informed the family wasn't entitled to financial compensation under Manitoba's Victims of Crime Compensation Fund, but she wasn't told they were still eligible for grief counselling and other benefits -- an error the department has now acknowledged.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/3/2019 (190 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On the heels of an independent investigation that exposed systemic barriers victims of crime face within the justice system, Manitoba's justice minister says the department has made operational changes to its victim services branch and still has "more work to do".

The provincial government hasn't promised to implement the five recommendations from the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, whose office spent the past year intensively examining the short life of Tina Fontaine through records from child-welfare agencies, police, health care and addictions detox facilities and her autopsy report.

On Wednesday afternoon, Minister Cliff Cullen addressed the recommendations for the justice department in detail for the first time, more than 24 hours after the public release of the report and more than two weeks after the justice department was given advance access to the report's victim-services-related findings.

It detailed the barriers Tina and her family faced as victims of crime within the justice system after her father, Eugene Fontaine, was beaten to death in 2011. The woman who raised Tina, Thelma Favel, was informed the family wasn't entitled to financial compensation under Manitoba's Victims of Crime Compensation Fund, but she wasn't told they were still eligible for grief counselling and other benefits — an error the department has now acknowledged.

Manitoba justice minister Cliff Cullen: "more work to do."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba justice minister Cliff Cullen: "more work to do."

Cullen said the department now has template letters drafted to clearly inform victims of crime about the services available to them.

"We’ve also enhanced our own internal communication and tracking system for individuals within the department and across justice, and certainly in terms of children in care, so that the respective jurisdictions dealing with individuals have better communication – clearly that was an indication in this report. So we’ve made very significant strides in that regard already. I will say though that there is certainly more work to do," Cullen said.

WHO ARE 17 YOUTH AT IMMINENT RISK?

Premier Brian Pallister says he is "very concerned" about a comment by Manitoba's advocate for children and youth that her office is aware of 17 youths who are at imminent risk of harm or death.

Pallister told the legislature Wednesday the government is following up on Daphne Penrose's assertion, and he's been told that the director of child and family services has contacted the advocate "to ascertain exactly who these children are."

Premier Brian Pallister says he is "very concerned" about a comment by Manitoba's advocate for children and youth that her office is aware of 17 youths who are at imminent risk of harm or death.

Pallister told the legislature Wednesday the government is following up on Daphne Penrose's assertion, and he's been told that the director of child and family services has contacted the advocate "to ascertain exactly who these children are."

"We would need to have the information reported so that action can be taken immediately," Pallister said.

Penrose's 115-page report on the tragic life and death of Tina Fontaine and how the system failed her continued to be uppermost in provincial politicians' minds at the legislature on Wednesday.

Under questioning from NDP Leader Wab Kinew, Pallister did not immediately commit his government to implementing Penrose's five major recommendations. However, he said the government is "excited" to review her report and act upon it.

Kinew said it's very important that the premier continue to follow up to ensure the safety of the 17 children referred to by the advocate.

"If I were the premier right now and I learned there were 17 kids at risk of imminent harm or death, I'm going to ask to have those 17 names on my desk," he said. "And my next call is probably to the Bear Clan...or some other organization that can reach out to these young people and make sure that they get the supports they need."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said Penrose's report shows there needs to be better co-ordination among CFS agencies to ensure kids don't fall through the cracks.

He said he's concerned by reports that the government and child welfare agencies disagree on the actual numbers of kids in care in Manitoba.

"If you can't agree on the number of children in care, that's a huge red flag," he said.

Speaking to reporters in Sagkeeng First Nation Tuesday during the release of her long-awaited report, Penrose said the 17 youths need immediate help and treatment to deal with their addictions.

– Larry Kusch

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

He said his department still needs clarification from Advocate Daphne Penrose about the wording of the recommendation, which calls for Manitoba Justice to "develop quality control measures" to properly provide "child-centred" victim support services.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Cullen said the province currently provides counselling that is specifically geared toward children. He emphasized the most recent provincial budget, released earlier this month, increases Victim Services staffing and funding by $325,000. Although he didn't make a firm commitment to implement the advocate's recommendations, Cullen suggested change will happen after the government finishes an inter-departmental review of the youth justice and child-welfare systems. That review was announced last month.

Daphne Penrose, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth who assembled the report for the investigation into the death of Tina Fontaine, during the report's release Tuesday.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Daphne Penrose, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth who assembled the report for the investigation into the death of Tina Fontaine, during the report's release Tuesday.

"Certainly communications within departments is very important and we think that review will add light to that and then from that review, we can take further steps to make sure that no kids fall through the cracks," Cullen said.

Her father's death was a turning point in Tina's life, the advocate's investigation found, before the 15-year-old wound up trying to survive on Winnipeg streets the summer she was found wrapped in a duvet cover in the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014. Despite seeking her participation in the court process for her father's convicted killers when she was 12, Manitoba Justice's victim support services were "too court-focused rather than child-centred," the report says, echoing a complaint oft-repeated by families and victim support groups.

"Tina had acute mental health needs following her father’s death but she was never provided with a single counselling session or other cultural healing, despite ongoing assessments and recommendations that this was a critical need in her life. Further, Tina developed acute addictions in her final months of life and used many different drugs and alcohol but was unable to find the help she needed that would support her to address her underlying pain," the report states.

Dr. Cary Miller, head of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, said there is no question Tina needed greater intervention.

"Youth counselling services are enormously important. As an adult, I lost my parents just a few years ago and it was enormously painful. I can't imagine the order of magnitude worse than that would be for a child, particularly for a child whose parent died under such difficult circumstances," she said.

"There are moments when we all need that, we need to engage those services. And making them more available to the youth and even in some circumstances requiring youth to talk to a professional, I think, is important."

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Wednesday, March 13, 2019 at 9:07 PM CDT: Updates story.

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