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Manitoba children's advocate investigates whether social services failed slain teen

Tina Fontaine is seen in this undated handout photo. Officers are investigating the slaying of a 15-year-old aboriginal girl from rural Manitoba whose body was found wrapped in a bag and dumped in the Red River after she ran away from her foster home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO, Winnipeg Police Service

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Tina Fontaine is seen in this undated handout photo. Officers are investigating the slaying of a 15-year-old aboriginal girl from rural Manitoba whose body was found wrapped in a bag and dumped in the Red River after she ran away from her foster home. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO, Winnipeg Police Service

WINNIPEG - Investigations are underway to determine whether Manitoba's social services failed a 15-year-old aboriginal girl who ran away from foster care and was found dead in the Red River.

But the public may never know what exact role Child and Family Services played in Tina Fontaine's life or her death.

The province's children's advocate automatically investigates whenever a child dies while in care, but the reviews are not made public. Child welfare authorities have also begun their own internal review but that is also confidential.

Ainsley Krone with the advocate's office said Wednesday a final report will go to the Manitoba medical examiner, the ombudsman and the minister of family services.

"Under our current legislation, we don't release it publicly," said Krone, the advocate's manager of communications, research and public education. "It's the ombudsman's office that has the responsibility for tracking the progress of recommendations that we make."

Fontaine's body was found on Sunday wrapped in a bag in the Red River after she ran away from her Winnipeg foster home where she had been for less than a month. Police are treating the case as a homicide.

The teen's death touched a nerve in Winnipeg where more than 1,000 people gathered for a vigil Tuesday night to remember Fontaine and Faron Hall, the so-called "homeless hero" whose body was pulled from the same river where he saved two people from drowning several years ago.

Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said she can't talk about the specifics of Fontaine's case but said the teen's death is heartbreaking.

"This is a young woman that had a bright future waiting for her and it was stolen," she said. "That is devastating for all of us."

Fontaine's case is being reviewed at several levels to see if there are lessons that can be drawn, Irvin-Ross said. The government is also looking at ways to make the children's advocate's recommendations public, she added.

But, she said, it's tricky.

"It's trying to find that balance between confidentiality and protecting the identity of families and children, but also making sure that we are sharing information with Manitobans."

Despite countless reviews, inquests and inquiries, Manitoba continues to have a tragic history of children who have died while in the care of social services.

The murder of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair by her mother and stepfather in 2005 prompted major changes to the system and a doubling of the social services budget. It also spawned one of the most expensive inquiries in the province's history that produced 62 recommendations.

The office of the children's advocate still investigates about 160 child deaths each year.

Opposition critic Ian Wishart said it takes an inquest or an inquiry for the public to hear details about the failings of social services. There are still many unanswered questions in Fontaine's case, he said.

"She had been moved within the last month to a new foster home. Whether or not there were enough supports there is one of the things we're wondering about," Wishart said. "She had apparently run away several times and, of course, the last time was with the most unfortunate of results."

Police spent Wednesday canvassing the downtown area where Fontaine was last seen Aug. 8. Officers would like anyone who may have seen Fontaine or knows what happened to her to contact police.

The teen's death has prompted renewed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. At a Liberal party meeting in Edmonton on Wednesday, Leader Justin Trudeau said the entire aboriginal community across Canada has been affected by Fontaine's death.

"It comes on a compounded loss of so many missing and murdered over the years, which is why the Liberal party has always been unequivocal that we need a full, national inquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women," he said.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair tweeted that he was "disgusted and saddened by this story out of Winnipeg."

"Enough talk," he wrote. "We need action and an inquiry, now."

National Chief Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations said an inquiry would be an important first step.

"We cannot allow violence to continue, particularly against some of the most vulnerable," he said in a statement Wednesday. "First Nations demand immediate and concrete steps to better ensure the safety and security of indigenous women and girls in this country."

The federal government has repeatedly rejected an inquiry. Justice Minister Peter MacKay did so again Tuesday when he said in a statement that it's "time to take action, not study the issue."

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