Manitoba First Nations woman shares story of life under CFS care

Tamara Murdock understands how young women under the care of Child and Family Services can fall into trouble.

Around six years ago, Murdock, then 15, was living in a foster home with another girl a couple years older than her.

One night they left their foster home to go out drinking. The girl disappeared, leaving her alone with a man in a house.

"When she came back, she came back with money and ecstasy pills," said Murdock, who is now 21. "She eventually got drunk and told me that she was a prostitute. That's how I found out she was working the streets."

Last year, about 10,000 children ended up in the care of CFS. A significant number of these kids are young girls who may find themselves, like Murdock did that night, in difficult situations.

Murdock, from Fisher River Cree Nation, is sharing her story now following the death of Tina Fontaine. The 15-year-old girl was under the care of CFS when her body was discovered wrapped in a bag in the Red River on Aug. 17.

Fontaine had been under CFS care for about a month. She had been reported missing when her body was discovered. Her death has attracted national attention and raised new questions about whether CFS is providing proper care for children under its supervision.

In and out of the system

While police continue to hunt for Fontaine's killer or killers, Murdock shared what she thinks could make a difference for other young people struggling in the CFS system.

Murdock was only 10 years old when her mother died of cancer; she was 13 when CFS was first called in. She had been struggling with issues of abuse, some unknown to her own family.

Murdock ended up in foster care in Winnipeg. At one point she was in three homes in only six months.

"It was hard on me because I did want to go back to my dad, but they told me I wasn't allowed," said Murdock. "They didn't know when. They didn't have an answer for me when I was going to go back to my dad."

Still a teenager, in and out of foster care, and struggling to cope, Murdock would run away.

"It's hard to be in foster care as a teenager," she said. "You take off running away from your foster home and you're looking for something that ain't at home.

"It's like you're looking for, I don't know, you're looking for love or guidance, but it's not something you can find on the street. You know it's something inside you that you are looking for that you lost."

Murdock would often head downtown and end up at Portage Place Mall.

"A lot of people that I met on the street, they would seem like they understood me more than my own social worker did, or like my family," said Murdock. "My family didn't know what I'd been through."

Throughout her time in care, depending on her worker, she said there was often a lack of communication. Even when she ran away, not much would change.

"They'd tell me that I'm putting my life in danger by doing that and drop me off at home," said Murdock. "I'd get like a lecture and they'd drop me off at home. That was about it. I wouldn't hear from them again."

On a dangerous path

Fortunately for Murdock, she soon realized that she was on a dangerous path and changes were needed.

It happened when she was hitch-hiking from Winnipeg to Fisher River all alone in the middle of the night. She was 17 years old.

"I was worried because of how many chances I took hitch-hiking as a teenager and how many times nothing happened to me at all," said Murdock. "I smartened up after that, thought about it, realized my chances were going to run out."

Murdock said she would like to see more programs to help young women.

She thinks it's important to ensure CFS workers are communicating with the kids they're trying to help.

"There are some workers out there that are good workers," said Murdock. "But, there are some that should talk more with the client they work with, or the foster child they work with."

The province said CFS workers deal with 25 to 28 cases at a time. But recommendations from the Phoenix Sinclair Inquiry suggested "ongoing services to families should be delivered on the basis of 20 cases per worker."

"There are some anomalies that happen," Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said, adding the province is working toward meeting all the recommendations from the Sinclair Inquiry.

"If there's a worker on vacation, on leave, a position that is not filled at this time, then people take on extra case loads. But, from what I understand, people are close to making that benchmark."

Childrens' health system 'under-resourced'

Jay Rodgers, the Chief Executive Officer of Marymound, spent years as the CEO of the General Child and Family Services Authority in Winnipeg.

He said in recent years, the province has made improvements in services to help young people at risk in Manitoba. But, said there is room for improvement.

"I think the children's mental heath system is an under-resourced system," said Rodgers. "We're at Marymound right now in discussions with the province about how we might be able to offer a mental health stabilization unit here, to get quicker access to needed mental heath services."

Rodgers said there also needs to be an improvement in the supports for young people who when they turn 18 are no longer under the supervision of the child welfare system.

"We still need to offer them a network of supports in case they get lured back into gang activity, or lured back into the sex trade," said Rodgers. "I think we are better at that, but as a system I think child welfare could offer more."

In the end, what helped Murdock was turning to tradition.

"I'm very spiritual, I pray a lot, like smudging, going to sweat ceremonies," said Murdock.

Now, her path is about building a stronger future for her and her two children.