Destiny Lameman had just finished watching family members move Tina Fontaine’s casket from the church to the hearse that would drive the body to Winnipeg to be cremated.
That’s when Destiny’s mother, Astra Thomas, faced her daughter and asked her an urgent question. “She’s the same age as you, same family, hanging around in the same area that you’ve been hanging around, doing the same kind of things you were doing, and yet you still don’t think it can happen to you?”
Like her cousin Tina and other young women in this community, Destiny, 15, has run away before – venturing into the city to search for excitement. In Destiny’s case that means staying with friends downtown and heading to Portage Place, a popular mall where runaways gather.
“She takes off on me once in a while, goes to the city and hangs out in the same area that Tina did,” Ms. Thomas said.
But runaways also run into danger – and they are creating big challenges for resource-strapped police departments that are forced to look for the same teens over and over. Across the country, individual police departments are tasked with alerting the public and trying to locate the missing. In Winnipeg alone, police are responsible for finding 45 to 60 youths every day, and many of them fall through the cracks.
“We have a lot of youth that are chronic runaways,” Winnipeg police Detective Sergeant Shauna Neufeld said. “Sometimes they’re gone for days or weeks at a time.”
“A lot of effort and time is put into locating them and they’re returned only to have them reported missing a few days later,” Det. Sgt. Neufeld said.
The RCMP reported this year that more than 1,000 aboriginal women were homicide victims between 1980 and 2012, and a further 164 were missing. Tina’s death has led to calls for a federal inquiry – and raised some very complex questions around aboriginal children and youth. Tina had run away and returned on several occasions, including while in the care of Child and Family Services, before she disappeared for the last time and her body was pulled from Winnipeg’s Red River on Aug. 17.
Det. Sgt. Neufeld estimates that over the last year, 60 per cent of missing youth had run away from group homes.
“There are more kids in care that are reported missing or that are leaving on a regular basis,” she said. “The goal is to stop kids from running away in the first place.”
Destiny has not run from home since early summer, but before the disappearance and death of her cousin, with whom she said she wasn’t close, she noticed a man following her through Winnipeg streets.
“[He] likes to follow around a lot of kids,” Destiny said. “Sometimes he rolls down his window and he’ll be like ‘you need a ride somewhere?’ and I’ll be like, ‘I ain’t stupid,’ then stick the finger at him and walk away. Sometimes I pretend I have a phone on me and stuff.”
Destiny has not yet reported the man to the police. She described him as being approximately six feet tall and having a white, clipped goatee. She remembered him looking cautious when he gets out of his vehicle, which, she said, happens sometimes but not always.
Dr. Erma Chapman, the CEO of Macdonald Youth Services in Winnipeg, said young people who run away from home are looking for excitement and opportunity.
“These kids are seeing what happened to Tina – the horrible, horrible, tragic murder of this young woman, as unique, as an isolated case not related to them at all,” she said. “They can see all kinds of possibilities of what they can be doing, the friends they can be making, the fun they can be having, but they don’t see the danger, they don’t see the probability.”
Det. Sgt. Neufeld said complex issues that youths face contribute to repeated disappearances.
“We’ve got a lot of kids in the city with alcohol and addiction issues, that are using crack cocaine or crystal meth on a regular basis; we’ve got a lot of kids with very real mental health issues that have attempted suicide; we’ve got a lot of kids in the city with developmental delays, [including] fetal alcohol syndrome,” she said.
While Winnipeg has what Det. Sgt. Neufeld called short-term solutions, the city does not have the resources to address those problems long term.
Destiny did not mention dealing with these issues, but she did say she is “sometimes” fearful of taking off into Winnipeg. When her mother asked her again whether she thinks she could find herself meeting the same fate as her cousin Tina, she looked at the ground. “Maybe,” she said. “But not really.”