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This article was published 23/5/2019 (450 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For years, children at a Garden Hill First Nation foster home were allegedly subjected to sexual and physical abuse, a trail of harm that impacted at least 17 boys and girls — and police believe there may yet be more victims.
After an expansive 11-month investigation that led to three arrests and a sweeping array of criminal charges, RCMP are making a public plea to help locate anyone else who may have been harmed.
"We recognize the possibility that there may be more children who have been victimized that have not yet been identified," RCMP Supt. Michael Koppang said, speaking to the media Thursday. "These potential victims may now be adults living outside the community, which is why we are asking for your assistance."
For now, RCMP are keeping most details of the investigation under wraps. They described how it began in December 2017, when RCMP in Garden Hill, a fly-in First Nation about 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, received the first of three initial reports that a child had been sexually abused in the community.
Police soon learned the accused, Paul Bruce Harper, had long had access to a foster home in Garden Hill that had sheltered numerous children. Working with Child and Family Services, investigators moved to locate and interview some 150 children and youth who had been in contact with Harper.
From those interviews, which were conducted by RCMP, social workers and experts at Snowflake Place for Children and Youth, police identified 17 victims, both male and female. At the time of the incidents, which occurred between 2011 and 2017, the children ranged in age from three to 15 years old.
Harper, 21, is facing a multitude of charges, including sexual assault, sexual interference and aggravated assault.
In addition, police also arrested a 20-year-old man who faces similar charges and cannot be named as he was a youth at the time of the alleged offences. Both remain in custody.
The home's foster mother, 66-year-old Lucy Harper, is charged with perjury and two counts of failing to report a child in need of protection, and for failing to provide for a child in need of protection. She has been released on bail, and is no longer a foster parent.
As police continue to investigate, crisis supports have been mobilized to support the victims and the community of Garden Hill. Speaking to reporters Thursday, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee stressed it will take a "collaborative effort" to facilitate healing for the victims.
"A tragedy of this magnitude requires an effort by the governments that we work with, the organizations we work with, to ensure that we work together... to ensure that victims are looked after and protected from future harm," Settee said. "Those are the things we're concerned about right now."
Standing beside Settee, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Arlen Dumas echoed that sentiment.
Dumas wanted any potential victims who may be out there to know what happened is not their fault, and nothing they did contributed to what they may have suffered.
"I encourage them to be courageous and to come forward," he said. "We're all here to support them, and to stand behind them, and ensure that we help with bringing justice to the issue, but also to facilitate the healing that's going to need to happen for them."
Speaking at the Manitoba legislature Thursday, Families Minister Heather Stefanson called the allegations "obviously very horrifying and very upsetting," and stressed CFS will continue to support the investigation.
"These are absolutely horrific allegations, and we take this extremely seriously," the minister said.
Anyone with information is encouraged to contact RCMP's Island Lake detachment at 204-456-2290.
Survivors who are currently at least 16 years old can also file a report through Klinic Community Health, which can work with victims anonymously to determine the best way forward (1-888-292-7565).
"We recognize that calling the police can be a difficult step to take," Koppang said. "I want to assure you that our investigators are professional and compassionate. We work with victims to explain every step of the process."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, May 23, 2019 at 2:57 PM CDT: Photo added.
May 24, 2019 at 1:30 PM: Corrects RCMP's Island Lake detachment phone number.
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