POLITICS

Family of assaulted Winnipeg teen now taken off life support has questions

04/16/2015 12:18 EDT | Updated 07/01/2015 12:59 EDT
WINNIPEG - The family of a 15-year-old girl who was seriously assaulted while in government care says she was a talented musician with a bright future who needed extra support.

Instead, they say, the girl was placed in a downtown Winnipeg hotel and is now in hospital clinging to life after the April 1 attack. A boy who was also in the care of Child and Family Services at the same hotel is facing charges.

The girl's family gathered at the hospital Wednesday and made the agonizing decision to unhook the machines keeping her alive.

Family friend Grand Chief David Harper, who represents northern Manitoba First Nations, said the girl's relatives turned to family services for help after she fell in with the wrong crowd. Now they want to know how things could have gone so wrong.

"She won a scholarship (for) music. That young girl had a lot of potential," Harper said Thursday. "They were there to look for help. Instead of giving her that help ... they put her in hotels."

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross declined to be interviewed. Her spokeswoman, Rachel Morgan, said the government is putting more money into helping families and children without formally taking them into care.

"Our hearts and thoughts are with the family at this time and we continue to hope for the best for this young girl," Morgan said.

Winnipeg police say they will look at upgrading charges if the victim's condition changes.

"We're monitoring this investigation and the status of the victim very, very closely," said Const. Jason Michalyshen. "This was a horrific event."

The girl's story is eerily similar to that of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose great-aunt contacted Child and Family Services when she had difficulty managing the teen last August. Fontaine was brought to Winnipeg where she was reported missing from foster care.

Her family says she was eventually picked up by social workers after she was found passed out in a downtown alley. She was taken to a hotel, but she ran away again.

Her body was found wrapped in a bag in the Red River more than a week later.

Manitoba has about 10,000 children in care. The vast majority are aboriginal. On any given day, dozens of those children are put up in hotels because there isn't room in a foster or group home.

Irvin-Ross tearfully promised to stop housing foster children in hotels by June 1 — a promise the province has made before. The governing NDP have been criticized for housing foster children in hotels for 15 years.

Manitoba's children's advocate has released several critical reports about the practice since 2000 and has urged the government to find better alternatives. Darlene MacDonald told The Canadian Press recently she is concerned youth in care are staying in police custody longer than necessary because there is nowhere else to put them.

She said judges have told her they want to release a youth but don't want to see them housed in a hotel.

Harper said some kids he has spoken to say they would rather be in police custody than in government care. Manitoba could follow Ontario's example and have group homes set up on remote reserves rather than sending kids to Winnipeg hotels, Harper suggested.

"Some of the girls in the youth centre say they don't want to go out because they don't want to be put in the hotel. They know it's not safe to be in hotels," he said.

"We have to take this seriously. We need to move on the whole idea of taking care of our children."

Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said the NDP government has a responsibility to act.

"Tears aren't enough," said the Opposition leader. "All Manitobans are saddened and concerned, but we're not the government of Manitoba."