A Manitoba judge is suggesting services for high-risk youth be reviewed following the death of an Indigenous teenage girl who hanged herself after spending most of her life in government care.
Provincial court Judge Shauna Hewitt-Michta said in an inquest report released Wednesday that federal law forbids incarceration for child-welfare purposes, but there must be ways to prevent high-risk children in care from continually running away and facing grave danger.
“It is difficult to make a detailed recommendation but equally tough to ignore the opportunity this inquest offers to draw attention to the need for adequate safe and secure foster placement options for high-risk youth in crisis,” Justice Hewitt-Michta wrote in her 72-page report.
Hewitt-Michta examined the 2013 death of a 16-year-old chronic runaway, who cannot be identified because of a publication ban. The girl was seized from her family at birth, ran away from foster homes and group homes and was exploited by gangs to work in the sex trade.
The judge’s report said that a year before her suicide, the girl had been placed in a Winnipeg facility that specializes in treating sexually exploited youth, but she continued to end up on the streets. A child and family services agency placed her in a private rural facility well away from Winnipeg, hoping the distant location would dissuade her from running away.
The girl’s situation improved for a few months, but she fought with other girls at the facility and disappeared while visiting family members. She was found again being exploited in the sex trade and was sent to another home run by the same private company – Specialized Foster Homes – in Brandon.
After being arrested for theft from a drugstore, she was placed in the youth section of the Brandon jail and hanged herself with a bed sheet.
“She died in a correctional facility, but the evidence suggests she was more likely to have died on the streets while on the lam from [the facility],” Justice Hewitt-Michta wrote.
The question of how to keep children in care from running away was also highlighted following the 2014 death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Indigenous girl whose body was found in a Winnipeg river.
The trial of her accused killer, Raymond Cormier, heard that Tina would frequently leave hotels and a youth shelter where she had been placed by child-welfare officials. She walked away a final time from a hotel room after rejecting pleas from a social worker to stay.
Mr. Cormier was found not guilty of second-degree murder.
Manitoba Families Minister Scott Fielding was not available for an interview Wednesday. His office issued a statement that did not address the issue of runaways.
“Our government is in the midst of a child-welfare reform that centres around support for prevention and early intervention, greater integration of services at a regional level and modernized legislation,” the statement read. “We believe better assessments and earlier planning will result in less children in care and shorter duration in care.”
The inquest report made a number of other findings in the 16-year-old’s suicide.
It said the private company that last took care of her lacked expertise in helping girls who had been exploited and was not able to prevent the teen from using drugs and alcohol while in its care.
The report also said the girl was at the Brandon jail for eight days, but a worker from the child services agency in charge of her didn’t visit or provide information to the jail about her mental-health challenges.