Manitoba

Systems failed Tina Fontaine's family before she was born, report reveals

Disturbing new details about the exploitation of Tina’s mother while in the care of Child and Family Services agencies were revealed in an extensive report released by Manitoba’s Advocate for Children and Youth on Tuesday.

Fontaine's mother also ward of CFS, suffered violence and exploitation at young age

(Submitted by Rose Fontaine)

The failure of the many systems meant to protect Tina Fontaine throughout her life began years before she was even born.

Disturbing new details about the exploitation of Tina's mother while in the care of Child and Family Services agencies were revealed in an extensive report released by Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth on Tuesday.

Upon reading these details, Tina's great-aunt Thelma Favel, the woman who raised the girl for much of her life, remarked that the family "was doomed from the beginning."

Tina's body, wrapped in a duvet weighted down by rocks, was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River on Aug. 17, 2014. Police arrested Raymond Cormier, a drifter and drug user, and charged him with murdering Tina, but a jury acquitted him and no one has ever been convicted in her death.

Many details about the ways in which public services failed Tina in the weeks leading up to her disappearance and death were revealed at Cormier's trial, but Tuesday's report shows that the failure of those systems extends even further, back to the life of Tina's own mother.

Mother exploited as a child

In her introduction to the report, children's advocate Daphne Penrose acknowledged that by including details about the lives of people other than Tina "expose[ed] them to the possibility of undeserved or ignorant criticism for the casual reader who is intent on casting blame." Not including them, however, would give an incomplete picture of the forces that shaped Tina's life, she wrote.

Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth Daphne Penrose announced the release of her report in Sakgeeng First Nation on Tuesday. (CBC)

Tina's mother, Valentina Duck, first came to the attention of CFS at the age of six. Duck's mother's relationships were "marked by violence and addiction, which at times left Tina's mother without adequate care and protection." She was made a permanent ward of CFS at age 10 in 1992.

Duck was moved around frequently and began running away, abusing drugs and alcohol at a young age. Her case workers also knew she was being sexually exploited, but did little to intervene, the report says.

At the age of 12, she met the man who would become the father of Tina and two of her seven siblings. Eugene Fontaine was 23 when he met Duck and he soon began sexually exploiting her.

Eugene Fontaine's father was a survivor of residential schools whose experiences led him to a life of "severe alcoholism and violence." Fontaine left his home on Sakgeeng First Nation at age 12 and moved to Winnipeg, where he fended for himself on the streets.

'Streets are her only friend'

Duck gave birth to her first child at age 14 in 1996 and CFS apprehended the child immediately. Around this time, Tina Fontaine's paternal grandmother confirmed to CFS that Eugene was profiting off of sexually exploiting Duck. Despite her case workers' concerns about her exploitative and often violent relationship, Duck told them he was the only one who would take care of her and that "the streets are her only friend."

Tina Fontaine, Duck's second child, was born Jan. 1, 1999, when Duck was 17 and her father was 28. The couple had been making positive steps, attending parenting classes and addictions programs, and hospital staff had no concerns at the time. In June of that year, Duck aged out care upon turning 18.

Problems began to resurface by the time their third child, Tina's sister, was born in June 2000. Tina and her sister were seized by CFS and placed in a hotel when they were one year old and four months old, after their parents left the children in the care of their grandmother and didn't return for some time.

The children were returned four days later,  but no assessment was done to determine if they were safe, or if their parents were capable of caring for them. The next year, Tina and her sister were seized again after their parents were spotted leaving a house party staggeringly intoxicated with their children in tow.

The children were again placed in a hotel for nine days and eventually went into foster care. Around this time, Duck and Fontaine's relationship ended.

In father's care

After he completed addictions treatment and parenting classes, Tina and her sister were returned to their father's care.

Given his extensive history of exploitation and violence towards their mother, Penrose wrote "it is concerning that the agency moved so quickly to place two children who were both under the age of three with Tina's father and then rapidly close their file without extensive monitoring and supports to ensure the children's ongoing safety."

A mural in her former school shows Tina Fontaine near a lake, with a flock of birds in flight at her side. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Contact between Duck and her children ceased for several years. Eugene Fontaine continued to struggle with his addiction, eventually placing the children into a customary care arrangement with his aunt, Thelma Favel, to whom the girls would refer as "grandma."

For many years, Favel provided a stable home for the two girls, who maintained regular contact with their father. In 2005, Favel contacted her CFS agency to ask about getting Tina assessed for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, but no assessment was ever done.

Father's death a turning point

The relative stability of Tina's life was upended when her father was beaten to death by two men in 2011, when Tina was 12 years old. The report criticizes Victim Services for failing to arrange counselling for Tina, who began skipping school and running away from home, despite repeated pleas from Favel and others to get her help.

"In the nearly three years of involvement since the homicide death of Tina's father, victim services neither met directly with Tina nor did they arrange a single counselling session for her to help her manage her loss and grief," the report says.

In April 2014, months before Tina's death, Favel contacted CFS asking to place Tina in their care. Favel was concerned that Tina was experimenting with drugs and talking to adult men over the Internet, making plans to meet them in Winnipeg.

When a CFS worker met with Tina on May 5, however, the risk of Internet luring and exploitation was not mentioned, the report says.

Struggling with grief

As the men who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the death of Eugene Fontaine approached their sentencing hearing, Tina struggled to write a victim impact statement. Favel asked victim services to help Tina write her statement, but staff said it is not normal process to get directly involved with children.

Tina's CFS agency referred her to get counselling in June 2014, but services were only available in Winnipeg and Beausejour, and transportation and scheduling difficulties prevented Tina from being able to access those services.

On the day of her father's funeral in November 2011, Tina received a call from her mother, the first time they had spoken since 2004. A visit with Tina's mother in Winnipeg in January 2014 had gone well, and Tina wanted to visit her again in July. Favel allowed her to go, but by then Tina's mother was again using drugs and soon Tina was living on the streets.

Despite telling her CFS workers she needed "a place where it feels like home," the only options available were hotels and temporary shelters. In the three weeks before she disappeared on Aug. 8, Tina was reported missing four times.

Although the details of Tina's life might make her ultimate fate appear inevitable, Penrose argues that the tragedy should serve as a wakeup call for our province.

"Those of us who are enraged, empowered and switched on need to ensure that we're standing up and getting involved so that all children can grow up support. If we take up these calls to action and move forward in a spirit of equity, justice, and reconciliation we can work to honour the name of Tina Fontaine," she said at a news conference Tuesday.

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

About the Author

Cameron MacLean

Web Writer

Cameron MacLean is a journalist living in Winnipeg, Man. where he was born and raised. He has more than a decade of experience covering news in the city and across the province, working in print, radio, television and online.