Former sexually exploited youth says report into Tina Fontaine's death misses the mark

In a report released last week into the 2014 death of Tine Fontaine, Manitoba's advocate for children and youth says the province should look at lengthening the number of days it can lock up at risk children. One survivor says lock up isn't the answer and that will do way more harm by re victimizing the victim.

Isabel Daniels says locking up exploited youth only further traumatizes them

Isabel Daniels says locking up sexually exploited youth for more days will cause more trauma. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A woman who was sexually exploited as a child says locking kids up won't help them leave the lifestyle — and could instead make things worse. 

Isabel Daniels says child sexual exploitation survivors — like her — have firsthand knowledge from the system that doesn't fit with recommendations in the Manitoba children's advocate report into Tina Fontaine's death. 

Daniels is strongly opposed to a recommendation to extend involuntary confinement for youth in imminent danger of harm. 

She chairs 24/7, a subcommittee made up of survivors pushing for a safe place for sexually exploited persons in Winnipeg. She was on the streets at the age of 14, picked up by police and charged after being molested and abused.

She believes the government's plan to extend the time an at-risk child can be in care beyond seven days is based in shame.

"The feeling when you are going into a locked facility is that you are the person in the wrong. You are being locked up because it is your fault.

"Being put in lockup only introduced me to gangs. Then I started working for a gang and I was bought and sold at 14. I stayed that way until I was 28," said Daniels, sharing her story with media Monday afternoon before the Sexually Exploited Youth Community Coalition at Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.

The coalition is a network of Winnipeg organizations and community members working together to address sexual exploitation in Winnipeg.

I am shocked they are still recommending to lock up kids. I will be 40 this year and that is still the solution? It is insulting, to say the least.- Isabel Daniels

Daniels isn't alone in speaking out about extending the days in involuntary lockup as laid out in the report. A report from the coalition lists numerous academic sources and even a Senate report from the Human Rights Project for Girls. 

Rose O'Connor is a retired social worker with Child and Family Services who also worked with the Children's Advocate for the past 10 years. She has worked with hundreds of young girls at risk.

She says the last thing they need is to be locked up for even longer periods of time. 

"That may make me feel better as a worker to know that they are safe. But it doesn't help her. In reality, it is hurting her. When something happens tragically like it happened to Tina, our reaction is Oh my God! We have to prevent this so let's lock everyone up," she said.

"It may be the answer for politicians and systems, but these kids are dying at the youth centre. Some have committed suicide,"said O'Connor.

A report into the 2014 death of Tina Fontaine sparked a renewed call for an independent and First Nations-led inquiry into her death, but the province said it would rather focus on making changes. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

She says to confine girls at risk when they already feel confined doesn't alleviate their anxiety or trauma; it feeds into it and hurts them.

Daniels knows that firsthand. 

"To lock me up at a centre at 14 and say 'I will come and check on you in 10 days,' all we are thinking is how we will get out. How will I make it up to my pimp who will make me work double shifts when I get out? I am shocked they are still recommending to lock up kids. I will be 40 this year and that is still the solution? It is insulting, to say the least," said Daniels. 

Daniels and the coalition are pushing for more safe care facilities instead. Places like Hands of Mother Earth, an esthetically beautiful lodge that offers traditional healing — and security through its remote, undisclosed location rather than locks on the door.

Daniels says she never received counselling while she was locked up while being exploited. But she did receive treatment for solvent abuse. She says a place that's more home like where you could access counselling and support could have made all the difference. 

She says the people who prepared the report on Tina Fontaine's death spoke to the wrong people.

Rose O'Connor is a retired social worker with Child and Family Services who also worked with the Children's Advocate for the past 10 years. (Marianne Klowak/CBC)

"We are the experiential folk to say this doesn't work. How can we as moms bring our children home if there is no shelter once we leave, once we are out of care? We have been asking for a safe place for how long now and they are still just saying lock them up. None of the survivors I know were consulted," says Daniels. 

The coalition is also calling for more resources to hire more people to work on the front lines — workers that build the relationships of trust and caring that can draw a youth at risk out of the downward cycle.

Tina Fontaine died in 2014. A report from the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth says in the years since, not enough has changed to ensure other children don’t die. 2:19

There is a network of front-line workers in Winnipeg providing nearly around the clock services to sexually exploited girls which lessens the need for involuntary confinement says Diane Redsky, head of Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre. But she says more are needed.

The coalition plans to present its case to Manitoba's advocate for children and youth. It's hoping the province will consult with them and the community before moving forward with legislative changes or creating new safe and secure facilities.

About the Author

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Marianne has always had a passion for seeking the truth. She began her career anchoring and reporting at CKX Brandon. From there she worked in both TV news and current affairs at CBC Saskatoon. For the past 25 years Marianne has worked in Winnipeg, both in radio and television. She was formerly a teacher in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.