WINNIPEG — Police have charged a 15-year-old boy in an attack that left a teen girl under the care of Manitoba Child and Family Services in critical condition, shining a spotlight again on the troubled child welfare system.
Just a day after the girl was found seriously assaulted and left for dead in downtown Winnipeg, police say they have a youth in custody who faces charges of aggravated assault and aggravated sexual assault.
At the time of the attack, Const. Chris Wingfield said the girl and the boy were in foster care and were being housed in the same downtown hotel. The two knew each other and the boy was actually the one who initially reported the assault to police, Wingfield said.
“The accused in this matter is the person we originally reported as the passerby who flagged over a passing police cruiser,” Wingfield said.
“This person was taken in as a witness originally. Investigators were speaking with him and were concerned that the story wasn’t making sense.”
Eleven minutes after Winnipeg police found the girl badly injured, she was reported missing from foster care.
The attack prompted a tearful Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross to promise to stop housing foster children in hotels by June 1.
The promise has been made before. In 2006, then-family services minister Gord Mackintosh promised to end the practice by July 1, 2007, because “a hotel room is no substitute for a family room.”
Irvin-Ross renewed that commitment in November when 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was killed after running away from one.
Thelma Favel, Fontaine’s great-aunt, wondered how many more tragedies it will take before something changes. The child welfare system should have been fixed years ago, she said.
“It had to take another young girl to be beaten and left for dead,” said Favel, who took Tina into her home in Powerview, Man., and raised her as a daughter for years.
“Every time I hear about another child being beaten and left for dead, it breaks my heart.”
Fontaine was reported missing from foster care last August but was picked up at a hospital by child welfare workers after being found passed out in a downtown alley. She was taken to a hotel where she ran away for the last time.
Her body was found wrapped in a bag in the Red River.
Social workers didn’t take Fontaine inside the hotel but dropped her off outside, Favel said.
“What kind of care is that?” she said.
“Tina’s death opened a lot of people’s eyes, but it had to take my baby to die for them to start to realize there is a problem. But the problem was always there. They just turned a blind eye to it.”
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.
The provincial government has been under fire for housing foster children in hotels for 15 years.
Manitoba’s Children’s Advocate has released several critical reports about the practice since 2000, urging the government to find better alternatives.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, with the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said the problem goes beyond hotels. The current child welfare system creates a “culture of survival.”
“People will do what they need to do to survive and, oftentimes, that leads to violence,” Nepinak said.
“It leads to a degradation of the value of other human beings’ lives. This is part of the consequences of the system we’ve created.”