Police, paramedics and a child welfare worker separately had contact with Tina Fontaine on the last day the aboriginal teenager was seen alive, prompting questions about the handling of a case that has brought the issue of Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women to the fore.
In what are believed to be his first public comments since Tina's body was pulled from the Red River on Aug. 17, Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis confirmed Thursday that a pair of officers encountered the 15-year-old during a traffic stop on Aug. 8, just over a week after she was reported missing from foster care.
"I was informed of this discovery on Sept. 3, and immediately directed our Professional Standards Unit to conduct an investigation," he said, noting the two officers have been placed on desk duty in the meantime. "The murder investigation, as well as the internal investigation into the conduct of our officers, are both currently ongoing."
The WPS declined to provide additional comment after the briefing, but the teen's aunt has offered new details about Tina's last day following conversations she had with police and Child and Family Services – including that her niece was in the care of a CFS worker on Aug. 8 after a hospital visit, but managed to run away one final time.
"She was in the hands of everybody who was supposed to be protecting her on her last night," said Thelma Favel, who had raised Tina for the past decade. "If [authorities] hadn't let her go, she would've still been here."
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Manitoba Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said she could not comment on the specifics of Tina's case, but she said her department is "fully co-operating" with police and is committed to helping find the girl's killer.
She said there is always opportunity for more inter-agency co-operation, including between police and social workers.
"It's very, very complicated working with children and youth every day," Ms. Irvin-Ross said, noting that the internal Family Services investigation into Tina's care remains ongoing. "There are success stories, and then there are issues that … tell us we have a lot more work to do."
Reached at her home on Thursday in Powerview-Pine Falls, Man., Ms. Favel recounted a conversation she had Wednesday evening with the lead investigator on the homicide case. She said Sergeant John O'Donovan told her that two officers took an impaired man into custody at a vehicle spot check on Aug. 8 but not Tina, who was a passenger in the car – despite her being the subject of a July 31 missing persons report.
"The Winnipeg police had her and they just let her go," Ms. Favel said.
Superintendent Danny Smyth said it remains unclear whether the officers knew at the time they were dealing with Tina, who was reported missing again Aug. 9, but he said he expects police who encounter a missing person to take that individual into their care.
Ms. Favel said Sgt. O'Donovan also explained that later on Aug. 8, a 911 call had been placed after someone found Tina passed out in the city's west end. Sources had previously told the Winnipeg Free Press that when Tina was found on Ellice Avenue, her clothing appeared to have been removed and a possible sexual assault was feared.
Ms. Favel said her niece was taken to the hospital, where the girl remained under observation for three or four hours, and was released into the custody of an on-call Child and Family Services worker. The worker didn't know the address for where Tina had recently been staying so the person drove to an agency office to get the information. When the worker left the car, her niece disappeared again, Ms. Favel said.
Ms. Favel had just recently placed Tina into provincial care after a spate of runaway incidents and trouble at home stemming from the 2011 beating death of her father. When she reached out to CFS on Aug. 15 with concerns over her niece's whereabouts, she was told Tina had already been "AWOL" for roughly two weeks.
"[The nightmare] just keeps going and going," a tearful Ms. Favel said, adding she just received a bill for the ambulance service.
The revelations about Tina's last day come at a time when trust between the WPS and some among the aboriginal community is already fragile. Victims' families recently took the search for their missing loved ones into their own hands by launching a random search of the Red River and its shoreline for remains and clues into unsolved cases. Police have so far refused to randomly scour the river and its banks, but the WPS has been on site to ensure the group's safety and is collecting items that could prove to be evidence.
Ms. Favel, for her part, said she is concerned police are handling cases involving aboriginal people with less care than those involving non-natives.
"They seem to turn a blind eye toward aboriginals," she said. "It's 'just another drunk Indian or dumb Indian that's out there getting into trouble,' but meanwhile they're out there for a reason. There's something going on in their life."