There were a lot of people, with a special duty to protect a young girl on the streets, who failed Tina Fontaine in the days before she was murdered, her body dumped in the Red River. Tops among them were the Winnipeg police officers who, on Aug. 8, stumbled across the 15-year-old in a car they stopped, driven by a much older man who had been drinking. They let her go, even though police knew she was at risk, in need of protection. She died just days later.

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This article was published 25/3/2015 (2398 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Editorial

There were a lot of people, with a special duty to protect a young girl on the streets, who failed Tina Fontaine in the days before she was murdered, her body dumped in the Red River. Tops among them were the Winnipeg police officers who, on Aug. 8, stumbled across the 15-year-old in a car they stopped, driven by a much older man who had been drinking. They let her go, even though police knew she was at risk, in need of protection. She died just days later.

The Crown’s office has decided there’s no basis to charge the officers criminally for dereliction of duty. But the Winnipeg Police Service is still refusing to release details on why the officers, in particular the senior officer training a new recruit, made the fateful decision to not take her into custody and call CFS to pick her up.

The refusal to divulge such detail is standard operating procedure of the WPS. It is this kind of traditional reflex to secrecy, and disrespect for public accountability, that sparked the creation of the Winnipeg Police Board. Yet, the board chairman, Coun. Scott Gillingham, does not think this matter is within the board’s purview, that such matters are closed to public scrutiny.

Mr. Gillingham needs to push for public disclosure.

His job, and the purpose of the board, is to represent the public interest in its oversight of the police service. The board is prohibited from being involved in police disciplinary issues, rightly so, and in the "personal conduct" of officers. But that doesn’t mean the police board can’t and shouldn’t demand a public accounting on how things went so wrong in the professional conduct of its officers last year, when they had a chance to take Tina Fontaine into their protection.

Indigenous girls and women are at elevated risk of violence in Winnipeg. Mr. Gillingham makes special note of this in a message as board chairman on the city’s website. He says all Winnipeggers deserve equal protection, and he points out the reality that aboriginal people don’t feel they get that right now.

Distrust of police runs deep within the aboriginal community. Many believe police dismiss reports from families and friends when aboriginal women or girls go missing. Police dispute this, and yet when Tina Fontaine could have been made safe by police, she was released to the streets again. She was 15, a runaway, vulnerable, with a history of being in care of child welfare agencies. All this was known to the WPS. And they let her go.

Why?

That lies at the heart of the question hanging over this tragedy. What was in the heads of the officers when they found a girl, a teen registered in their computer files as at risk, in the company of an older man, but then decided against taking her into their care?

Police were not the only authorities who had contact with Tina days before her murder. Child welfare workers, later that day, collected her from hospital, after she was found on an inner-city street intoxicated and looking as though she had been sexually assaulted.

And then Tina Fontaine ran again.

Too few facts have been publicly released. The Crown’s office refuses to publicly explain its decision on charges. The WPS, which sat on the Crown’s decision for months, now says only that the officers are under disciplinary review now.

Further, two reviews of the actions of child welfare workers were triggered by Tina’s death, one by the children’s advocate and one under the CFS Act, also to be given to Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross. What did they find?

It has been seven months since that work began, since Tina Fontaine’s frail corpse was pulled, wrapped in plastic, from the muddy river in the centre of this city. Ms. Irvin-Ross must make public the findings of the actions of CFS.

And for its part, the police board must be lead by the spirit of its mandate — civilian oversight, public accountability, transparency — to ask the hard questions of Police Chief Devon Clunis to account for why his officers decided this young, troubled girl did not need to be taken under the wing of the WPS.