Extending involuntary confinement for at-risk youth a last resort, but sometimes necessary: child advocate

Children who are in dangerous situations involving drugs and sexual exploitation can be involuntarily held for up to seven days in Manitoba — but the advocate for children and youth thinks the province should explore lengthening that maximum period.

'When you're doing that, you are institutionalizing and creating further harm': Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata director

A report into the 2014 death of Tina Fontaine recommends the province study Alberta's legislation on involuntary confinement for youth in imminent danger of harm. (Submitted by Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth)

Children who are in dangerous situations involving drugs and sexual exploitation can be involuntarily held for up to seven days in Manitoba — but the advocate for children and youth thinks the province should explore lengthening that maximum period.

In her report on the life and death of Tina Fontaine, released Tuesday, Daphne Penrose points to Alberta's Protection of Sexually Exploited Children Act as an example.

Alberta police and social workers can apprehend a child without a court order and place them involuntarily in a secure treatment facility for five days. That decision must be justified to a judge afterwards. The judge also has the power to grant up to two extensions of involuntary treatment of 21 days each.

"This extended period would provide time for stabilization of the youth, further assessment, and allow for culturally appropriate interventions by clinicians and other specialized supports," Penrose wrote on page 86 of her report into the failure of several systems to protect 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River in 2014.

'Locking kids up' creates further harm

Diane Redsky, executive director of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre in Winnipeg, says she is disappointed with the recommendations that came out of the investigation into Tina's life and death.

She says recommending longer periods of confinement is a slippery slope because there's a risk it could become the standard treatment method.

"Essentially you're locking kids up under the guise of [it being] for their own protection," she said. "But when you're doing that, you are institutionalizing and creating further harm, particularly for sexually exploited girls."

Diane Redsky, executive director of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, says locking up sexually exploited girls does more harm than good. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Redsky said Manitoba looked at Alberta's legislation in 2008, when nearly 200 people working to stop child sexual exploitation gathered for the Front Line Voices summit.

The recommendation that came out of that summit was further study to create a made-in-Manitoba approach. No legislative changes were ever made. 

Redsky said she was shocked to see the youth advocate make the same recommendation 11 years later. 

"I'm really really worried that the children's advocate is just so way off-base on this that they're really not in touch with the issue of sexual exploitation."

'Last measure': Penrose

But Penrose said with the rise in methamphetamine use, longer involuntary treatment periods must be considered again.

"Absolutely it is a last measure," she said. "But it is a measure we cannot afford to go without."

An Alberta official said that's the approach in their province.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson with Alberta Children's Services said "secure services are always a last resort, when all other measures have failed."

The spokesperson said 176 young people were treated in a secure facility in Alberta in 2017-18, but wouldn't specify how many were involuntarily confined.

The spokesperson would not say how many treatment beds Alberta has for sexually exploited youth because each case is unique. Services are tailored to what the youth need and can include drug and alcohol counselling, medical assistance, counselling or psychological services, and educational supports.

Last month, the province of Manitoba announced a review of youth justice and its connections to the child-welfare system.

"The advocate's recommendation falls within the scope of that review, and staff have been studying policy in Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario," said Families Minister Heather Stefanson in an emailed statement.

Building trust

Redsky says in her experience, getting girls away from their exploiter is the best way to help them.

Ma Mawi runs a rural healing lodge in an isolated, undisclosed location, where the perpetrators cannot find the girls.

"Return the children to the land is what our elders have said. It promotes healing, it promotes and empowers them to reclaim their power and their decision making," said Redsky.

She says in her many years of working with exploited girls, she has only had to use a secure facility twice. 

There is a network of front-line workers in Winnipeg providing nearly around-the-clock services to sexually exploited girls, Redsky said, which lessens the need for involuntary confinement.

"Those are the meaningful relationships that have to be built, because sexually exploited girls particularly have had almost every adult in their life … let them down," she said. 

She feels locking them up breaks down the trust.

'There needs to be something'

Jennifer Richardson, who helped create Manitoba's StreetReach Program — which works to prevent sexual exploitation of children and youth — feels involuntary confinement should be explored as an option.

She says the topic kept emerging while she was researching her thesis on working with sexually exploited youth.

"They did all speak about the need to have a continuum of services," including "some type of secure facility designed specifically for their needs," said Richardson, who is now the director of Ontario's Anti-Human Trafficking Co-ordination Office.

She interviewed young adults who had been sexually exploited or trafficked, as well as their parents.

She said when looking back, many of her interview subjects said being confined, but not in a jail like setting, was what they needed.

"Considering children are being harmed at an alarming rate, there needs to be something when all of the other services are not able to provide for their safety," she said.

Richardson said the province must consult with front-line workers and the community before moving forward with legislative changes or creating new safe and secure facilities.