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The second floor of the Best Western Hotel used by Child and Family Services to house children in their care in Winnipeg.Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Some of the swelling has gone down. Her nose is visible now, her eyes a little more so. The lids do not flutter, though, and her breathing is laboured.

The native teen is fighting for her life after an April 1 assault in downtown Winnipeg so violent that her family called in a minister to baptize her in the pediatric intensive-care unit.

The 15-year-old, whom The Globe and Mail is not identifying because she is the victim of a sexual assault and a minor in provincial care, is the unwitting catalyst for promises of swift change to Manitoba's emergency child-welfare system.

After it was revealed that the girl had been placed at a downtown hotel at the time of the attack, Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross publicly pledged to move all provincial wards out of hotels by June 1. The accused, a 15-year-old male who has not been publicly named because he is a minor, is also in foster care and had been placed at the same hotel.

Relatives say the girl is in a coma, unrecognizable even to those who know her well and are at her bedside – her mother, grandmother, older brother and great-aunt. The great-aunt, who said she is close with the wavy-haired teen, said she recently took a blanket to the church on her reserve to have it blessed and plans to lay it over her young niece.

"Who was looking after her?" asked the great-aunt, who said the girl had been placed at the Best Western Charter House a couple of months ago, after she started running away from her grandmother's North End home. "It's the worst thing that [Child and Family Services] could ever do, mixing up the girls and boys in a hotel."

The April 1 attack is the second high-profile crime in eight months involving a native teen placed at the Winnipeg hotel. In August, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was pulled from the city's Red River after going missing from the Best Western Charter House. Her death reignited calls for a national inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing indigenous women and put the province's child-welfare system under a microscope.

The Globe has been investigating the emergency-placement program since October and found evidence of prolonged hotel stays, questionable supervision and possible security concerns. The number of children and youth in hotels fluctuates daily, but at any given time there could be dozens of foster charges – mostly aboriginal – living in rented rooms.

The Winnipeg Police Service confirmed Monday the girl remains in critical condition but would not comment on the continuing investigation.

The great-aunt said the teen is aboriginal with familial roots on a reserve north of Winnipeg. She had a difficult upbringing in the city, but found solace in writing and music, her great-aunt said. She wrote sombre poetry and taped her work to the steel-grey walls of her small bedroom. Through a school program a couple of years ago, she took interest in the violin and would practise, eyes closed, on the back porch.

Her great-aunt said she would spoil the teen, letting her keep the change when she sent her out to get the morning newspaper, or tipping her for carrying her suitcase to the car after a visit. But the girl would dote on her great-aunt, too.

"I would be resting on the couch and I'd hear a voice say, 'Aunty, do you need another blanket? Another pillow?' I knew it was [her]," she recalled.

Last summer, though, the girl started running away. On one occasion, in the early morning hours of a frigid January night, she came home after walking alone in the dark from a friend's house. "I tried to talk to her, and said, 'What if someone grabs you?'" her great-aunt said. On another occasion, after the girl ran away for several days, her great-aunt travelled from her reserve into the city to help scour the streets. She did not find the girl; CFS did, she said, and placed her at the hotel.

The great-aunt said she is not convinced the government will fulfill its promise to remove foster charges from hotels within 60 days. In the meantime, she will pray for her niece's recovery. "I love [her]," she said. "She's a beautiful girl."

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