Family, First Nation leaders want public inquiry into Indigenous teen's death

First Nations leaders and the family of an Indigenous teen who was found dead in a group home in British Columbia last month are calling for a public inquiry into his death.

An aunt of the 17-year-old boy's mother, who is considered his great-grandmother in Cree custom, said Thursday the family trusted the government and delegated Aboriginal agency to care for the boy.

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The family still hasn't been told what happened in the time leading up to his death or what efforts were made to look for him in the days after he died, she said.

"Even from a broken heart, we want to know what happened."

The family hopes a public inquiry would shed light not only on the boy's death but on broader discrimination in the child welfare system, she said.

Abbotsford police have said a care worker at the group home reported the 17-year-old missing Sept. 15 and he was found dead three days later but their investigation did not find grounds for criminal charges.

The teen was found in the closet of his bedroom at the group home where he was last seen, and had been there the whole time, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs has said.

The boy was at the group home on a consent order, meaning his mother asked the ministry for help and trusted them to provide it to her son, the union's Judy Wilson said Thursday.

His great grandmother said the boy's mother maintained regular contact with him. Around Sept. 14, she received a call from the home asking if she had heard from the teen and she said no.

From that day forward, the boy's mother phoned the home every day — sometimes three times a day — to check if they had found him. Often her calls went unanswered, the great grandmother said.

"We don't understand that, the dots do not connect. Something went terribly wrong here," said Sarah Rauch, the family's lawyer.

"I've written to the different agencies requesting detailed information. Unfortunately, I have not heard back yet."

In an email, the Ministry of Children and Family Development said it cannot comment or confirm its involvement with any individual or family for legal reasons.

But it released a Sept. 29 statement attributed to deputy minister Allison Bond that says the ministry conducts case reviews after the death of any child or youth in care.

"Ministry case reviews inform policy and practice developments, as well as training," the statement says, adding that they could also find "deficiencies in casework practice that need to be addressed."

No one at the delegated Aboriginal agency was immediately available for comment.

Rauch said a full public inquiry would have the advantage of examining the actions of all involved parties including the ministry, delegated agency and police.

The boy's great aunt was joined by representatives of the First Nations Leadership Council, which includes the First Nations Summit, B.C. Assembly of First Nations and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, in calling for the public inquiry.

"Indigenous people dealing with any government system are automatically at a disadvantage," said Chief Harvey McLeod of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations.

"Standing up to these systems and demanding action is challenging, if not impossible for any single person or family go to through, especially a grieving mother and family. That's why we're here standing with her and her family, so that they don't have to go through this alone."

Wilson said the council would like to see each of the political parties in the provincial election promise a public inquiry.

Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, said there is a "98 per cent chance" she'll launch her own independent investigation into the boy's death, but she is waiting on the results of an investigation by the BC coroners service.

She would hold off if the coroner launches an inquest or if the family and community did not believe her investigation was needed.

However, Charlesworth said the boy's death falls under her mandate, which includes reviews or investigations into any death of a child in care who has been receiving services from the government in the past year.

"I only do investigations where it's very clear there's a broader systemic issue at play, that's what we're trying to address," she said.

"I deeply feel for the family and the community that have been impacted by this."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2020.

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