Toronto's leading LGBT advocacy agency has publicly apologized for its handling of information related to the investigation into the disappearance of Alloura Wells, a transgender woman found dead in a midtown ravine last summer.
The 519, a city-run organization dedicated to the "health, happiness and full participation" of Toronto's LGBT community, posted the contrite message on their website on Tuesday.
"We apologize to the community and specifically to the trans community, for the mishandling of information that our staff received from a member of the public," said 519 executive director Maura Lawless, who co-signed the post with David Morris, chair of the agency's management board.
"We recognize the pain this has caused members of the community and our staff. We recognize that the trans community and in particular, trans feminine women of colour and sex workers, face the most significant systemic discrimination, barriers to service, and violence."
In July, Wells's Facebook page — which she was very active on — went dormant, raising concern among her family and friends. The 27-year-old was not reported missing, however, until early November. In late November, police revealed that the body of a transgender person had been discovered in a Rosedale ravine in August. Later, investigators identified the remains as those of Wells.
Rebecca Price discovered Wells's badly decomposed, then-unidentified body on Aug. 5. She called police and provided a brief statement to investigators. After a few weeks passed without any word from police, she followed up with the detective on the case who told her that the remains were those of a transgender person.
The sum of this comedy of errors led to a really unfortunate circumstance. - David Morris, The 519 management board chair
Seeking some sense of closure, she sent an email to The 519 on Aug. 17.
"It seemed like the right thing to do, since it's the leading agency for these kinds of issues in the city," Price told CBC Toronto. "That's somebody's child that I found. I couldn't stop trying to help."
The subject line on her email read: "Transgender Dead Body Found in Toronto."
On Aug. 25, Price heard back from a representative of The 519. The employee said that they were "reaching out" to contacts with Toronto police "to get some more information." She didn't hear back from the agency.
'There are frontline staff that knew'
According to Morris, the board chair, "for a number of factors that information wasn't elevated up into the organization for us to take a comprehensive response to it.
"Our attempts to follow up with the police weren't successful in establishing a two-way communication on this issue."
An earlier statement posted by Lawless on Dec. 1 echoed this explanation, saying, "this information was not elevated to a senior leadership level, which is expected in any situation where a death has been reported."
Morris told CBC Toronto that "a number" of employees were aware of Price's email, but they did not follow established policies.
"In some ways, it was circumstance — people being away on vacation — and in other ways, protocols weren't being followed. The sum of this comedy of errors led to a really unfortunate circumstance," he said.
The community was talking about Alloura missing at the time that body was discovered. - Monica Forrester, trans activist
Many within the LGBT community were stunned to learn that The 519 had knowledge that a transgender person had been found dead, yet the agency did not contact other relevant organizations in the city to let them know.
"The community was talking about Alloura missing at the time that body was discovered. There are frontline staff that knew. But nobody did anything," said Monica Forrester, a transgender activist who knew Wells. Forrester was once an employee of The 519.
"[The 519] should have pushed for answers. They have a responsibility to all the communities that they serve," she added.
Through her own efforts to help identify the remains, Price personally contacted other agencies — such as Maggie's Toronto Sex Workers Action Project — to notify them of her grisly discovery.
"They were absolutely shocked to learn that I'd already told The 519," Price said. "It was extremely disheartening because no one seemed to be doing much about it."
A probe and a task force
All parties involved in the case, including Wells's family members, have been similarly critical of Toronto police's work on the case. Forrester had alleged police overlooked Wells's case because she was transgender, homeless and possibly a sex worker.
Amid several high-profile disappearances and a homicide in the Church and Wellesley area, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders announced an internal investigation into the force's missing persons protocols.
Morris said The 519 will be working with other organizations in the city to develop a missing persons protocol of their own that may help police in future cases involving members of the LGBT community and sex workers.
"We could have done better," he added.
The agency is also launching a "special joint executive and senior leadership task force" that will seek to better understand 'the issues, realities and impact facing trans communities," the apology post reads.