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Investigation demanded in death of First Nation teen in Abbotsford group home

Last Updated Sep 29, 2020 at 6:00 pm PDT

FILE -- First Nations Summit leader Cheryl Casimer, right, comments on the death of 18-year-old Alex Gervais, who died at an Abbotsford motel while in foster care, after the Youth Matters conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. Listening behind her are Sto:lo First Nation Grand Chief Doug Kelly, from left, chair of the First Nations Health Council, Scott Clark, Executive Director of the Aboriginal Life In Vancouver Enhancement (ALIVE) society, and Ernie Crey, President of the North West Indigenous Council. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

The mother of a teen found dead in his Abbotsford group home wants a full investigation, inquest into his death

His body had been hanging in his bedroom closet for four days and was deemed a suicide by police, coroner

ABBOTSFORD (NEWS 1130) — First Nations leaders are seeking accountability in the death of a teen at his Abbotsford group home after it took days for him to be found hanging in his closet.

Staff at the home called his mother on Sept. 14, saying he was considered AWOL and asked her if she had heard from her son. When she said she hadn’t, staff filed a missing person report, according to a release from Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.

Four days later, he was found dead in his bedroom closet at the group home run by a delegated aboriginal agency.

His mother learned last week her son’s death would not be investigated because it was deemed a suicide by the Abbotsford Police Department and the BC Coroners Service.

Why didn’t they check his closet?

Cheryl Casimer, a political executive with the First Nations Summit, says the mother wants a full investigation and inquest into her son’s death.

She tells NEWS 1130 she doesn’t understand why staff didn’t check the teen’s room before reporting him missing, even just to see if he had taken a bag or clothing with him.

“You would think that in a group home situation, where you’re responsible for children and youth in care, you would have measures in place to make sure that you are fully aware of where they’re at, particularly when they’re in the home.”

An autopsy demanded by the teen’s mom has been ordered, but it’s not clear why his body was not found until four days after he was reported missing by staff at the group home.

While some of the circumstances are unknown, Casimer wonders if the teen would have been found sooner if he was white.

“We feel that the manner in which his death is being handled isn’t taken seriously because of the fact he may be an Indigenous youth,” she says.

“It’s tragic and it’s heartbreaking. For those of us who are parents, and as a mother and a grandmother, I just can’t even imagine what that would feel like in that situation,” Casimer says. “To know that your baby was by himself for four days and nobody even knew.”

Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, says the lives of First Nations children deserve the same attention and action as every other child.

“This young man was in the care of a system that was supposed to protect him, yet his body went unnoticed for several days. The decision of the police to not investigate thoroughly into the circumstances of his death is an affirmation of the systemic racism that devalues the lives of Indigenous peoples,” she says in a release.

‘Troubling similarities’

For a Chilliwack father, Peter Lang, this tragedy is eerily similar to the 2015 death of his 15-year-old son, Nick, while in a government addiction program.

“The similarities here are troubling,” he says.

“This case, in my opinion, absolutely does deserve to have an inquest, not just around the issue of the death but the aftermath – the four days after and what happened there,” he says, suggesting it might need to be an independent investigation.

Lang says after the family pushed for an autopsy, Nick’s death was ruled inconclusive.

But he also worries about the teen’s family.

“There really needs to be support put in place for that family because they are going to be irreparably damaged forever. I mean, Nick’s mom is just now starting to go back to work over five years later.”

‘No criminality suspected’

Const. Jody Thomas with the Abbotsford Police Department confirms the missing person report for the teen came in on Sept. 15 and several community searches for him followed in the city and in Chilliwack.

“There was no indication that he was suicidal, or using drugs or alcohol,” she writes in an email, adding the care worker believed the teen was with friends of family.

When the teen was found, the department’s Major Crime Unit took over the investigation. It concluded no criminality was suspected.

Meanwhile, the coroners service says in an email it is currently investigating to determine the facts of the incident, but it can’t comment further since the case is still open.

“The Coroners Service is also responsible for the investigation of all child deaths (a child being a person under the age of 19 years) in B.C. and reviews all child deaths to discover and monitor trends and determine whether further evaluation is necessary or desirable in the public interest.”

Once the investigation is over, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe will determine if an inquest should be held.

In an emailed statement to NEWS 1130, Jennifer Charlesworth, the province’s representative for children and youth, says the situation is under review but little else can be said for now.

“Our legislation requires us to wait until a coroner’s investigation is completed or one year after the death – whichever comes earlier – before we can begin any investigation,” she says.

“As with all tragic deaths of children and youth receiving government services, we know that there will be important learnings from this terrible situation.”

She says her office will be releasing a report on residential services in 2021.

If you or someone you know needs help immediately, call 911 or the B.C. Crisis Centre at either 310-6789 (no area code required) or 1.800.784.2433 where help is available 24/7. You can alternatively call Crisis Services Canada at 833.456.4566 for help 24/7 or text 45645 from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. PT in English and French.