A Winnipeg high school teacher accused of exchanging sexually exploitative social media messages with a 12-year-old girl has won a court fight to keep his name off the province’s child abuse registry.
In a decision released last month, Queen’s Bench Justice Regan Thatcher ruled while messaging between the male teacher and girl was "highly suggestive of an inappropriate relationship," the court "must be careful to not quasi-criminalize all communications between an adult and a child that while unwise, may be entirely innocent."
The decision was in response to an application by the Child and Family All Nations Coordinated Response Network (ANCR) to have the man’s name added to the registry.
Under the Child and Family Services Act, a person can be added to the registry, absent a criminal conviction, if a family court finds a child is "in need of protection" due to abuse. Access to the registry is restricted to child welfare and adoption agencies, peace officers and employers whose work involves the care of children.
The man cannot be identified under terms of a publication ban. Court records do not identify what school division he worked for when communicating with the girl. It is unclear if he is still working as a teacher.
The court “must be careful to not quasi-criminalize all communications between an adult and a child that while unwise, may be entirely innocent.” – Queen’s Bench Justice Regan Thatcher's ruling
Court heard the teacher met the young girl while coaching at a sports camp in July 2016. A month later, the man was trying to contact another coach through Instagram when the girl’s name came up as a suggested contact. The girl accepted the man’s contact request and they continued to message each other until December 2016, when the conversations moved to Snapchat.
In July 2017, the girl blocked the man on Snapchat, later alleging he had been "blowing up (her) phone" with up to 30 messages a day. Two weeks later, the girl’s parents found the Instagram messages on her phone and contacted Winnipeg police.
A detective assigned to the case treated it "non-criminally" and did not interview the girl. In a police interview, the man insisted the messages were innocent. The detective later contacted the school division and the teacher was suspended.
ANCR launched an investigation and, after interviewing the girl, obtained access to the Instagram messages, prompting its application.
A transcript of Instagram conversations between August and December 2016 was provided to court, with "the most concerning of exchanges" occurring in the first month, Thatcher said. Those discussions included lengthy exchanges about "tickle fights" they participated in at camp.
"While the legal standard of a balance of probabilities has not been met, right-thinking people everywhere would very properly be suspicious about the intentions of a grown man messaging a 12-year-old girl. The alarmed response of (the girl’s) parents (was) entirely justified.”
In other exchanges, the man asked the girl if she "missed (him)."
There was no evidence the man and girl met outside sports camp, though the girl told an ANCR investigator the man indicated he would like to meet her sometime, Thatcher said.
The Snapchat exchanges weren’t available to the court as they, by design, disappear seconds after being viewed. No attempt was made by investigators to obtain message data directly from Snapchat, making it harder to assess the girl’s credibility on the question of how often they communicated on the social media platform, Thatcher said.
The girl told the ANCR investigator the Snapchat exchanges were similar in nature to those on Instagram.
ANCR argued in court the "tickle fight" discussions amounted to luring, and transformed the relationship into one of sexual exploitation.
ANCR investigators did not record or transcribe their interview with the girl, meaning her responses were filtered through the testimony of an abuse case worker who already believed abuse had occurred, Thatcher said.
"I do, however, feel compelled to note that this case dealt with (an adult male) messaging a 12-year-old girl for almost a year," the judge said. "It would have required only a whisper of further evidence to push the needle to… place the (man’s) name on the registry.
"While the legal standard of a balance of probabilities has not been met, right-thinking people everywhere would very properly be suspicious about the intentions of a grown man messaging a 12-year-old girl. The alarmed response of (the girl’s) parents (was) entirely justified."