December 14, 2019

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Advocate's calls for immediate action cannot be ignored

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/3/2019 (275 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Of all the vitally important things said by Daphne Penrose on Tuesday at the release of the report on the life and death of Tina Fontaine, perhaps this one overrides the rest:

"This can’t be another report that gets shelved."

Manitoba advocate for children and youth Daphne Penrose callied for an overhaul in the way government agencies handle cases involving at-risk children and youth. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Manitoba advocate for children and youth Daphne Penrose callied for an overhaul in the way government agencies handle cases involving at-risk children and youth. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Ms. Penrose, Manitoba’s advocate for children and youth, issued a 115-page document calling for across-the-board changes in the way federal and provincial agencies handle cases involving at-risk children and youth. It states, in no uncertain terms, that a failure to improve systems — in particular, by adopting the five key recommendations outlined in the report — will result in more deaths similar to the tragic end suffered by 15-year-old Tina in 2014.

The report’s release took place in Sagkeeng First Nation, the remote community 145 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg in which young Tina was raised. In addition to retracing the path of the girl’s short and difficult life, the document lays bare the myriad ways in which social-services agencies failed her.

At various times, up to five different agencies shared responsibility, passing the file back and forth in a manner that left Tina without the supports she urgently required. Her challenges became particularly acute after her father was murdered in 2011, a tragedy that sent her into a spiral that included leaving school and her home community and beginning a cycle of drug use and sexual exploitation in Winnipeg.

When she did ask for help, it was either insufficient or non-existent. In the days before she disappeared, she was turned away from two city shelters because no beds were available, and her desperate call to Child and Family Services (CFS) produced no useful results. While she had been reported missing numerous times, neither CFS nor police would return Tina to her great-aunt and primary caregiver, Thelma Favel, because legal guardianship had never been transferred to her.

The end of Tina’s life is described by many as the "tipping point" that set in motion the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The report of that endeavour is expected later this spring.

In the meantime, governments are left to consider the five recommendations in Ms. Penrose’s report: improvements of how schools deal with absenteeism, expedited implementation of a youth mental-health strategy, provision of victim-support services for children, development by CFS of a "safe and secure" place for children at risk of sexual exploitation, and creation of a provincial response protocol to be followed when youth go missing.

These are clear, direct and achievable; what is required immediately is political will.

Tina Fontaine had been reported missing numerous times, but neither CFS nor police would return her to her great-aunt and primary caregiver because legal guardianship had never been transferred.

Tina Fontaine had been reported missing numerous times, but neither CFS nor police would return her to her great-aunt and primary caregiver because legal guardianship had never been transferred.

"That we have failed our children in the past is indisputable," Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday. "That we need to make sure we do everything in our power to give every Manitoba child opportunity and security is, I think, beyond debate."

If there’s no need to debate — or, as some have suggested, to hold another inquiry — then it’s time to get to work. The advocate’s office will audit the progress of the provincial and federal governments, and will issue an implementation report in six months.

Ms. Penrose offered a dire warning as she released her report: her office, she advised, is aware of 17 youth who are at immediate risk because of drug addiction and lack of available treatment.

They cannot be left to die because another report ended up on another shelf. Each of them, as well as untold hundreds of other at-risk youth whose peril has not yet been identified, deserves a better ending than what befell Tina Fontaine.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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