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The former government-run group home where Traevon Chalifoux-Desjarlais died is seen in Abbotsford, B.C. on Nov. 18, 2020.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia’s children’s advocate is calling on the provincial government to enact urgent measures to ensure youth are being safely cared for in B.C. group homes, following a Globe and Mail investigation into the many failings that led to the death of a Cree teen.

Children’s representative Jennifer Charlesworth said in an interview Monday she was horrified to read about the conditions in the group home run by an Indigenous care agency in the province’s Lower Mainland. She said the circumstances surrounding the death of Traevon Desjarlais-Chalifoux indicate conditions in B.C.’s group homes are being allowed to deteriorate.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, the situation is getting more severe, and more acute,” she said.

The Globe reported this weekend that care workers charged with looking after Traevon, aged 17, were said to be verbally abusive and neglectful. The workers sometimes withheld food as punishment, and locked the teen outside – sometimes for hours. He was left alone in his tiny bedroom for days at a time in the early weeks of the pandemic.

In September, 2020, Traevon was found dead by suicide in his bedroom, four days after he was reported missing.

A prominent Indigenous leader said there were red flags that could have saved Traevon’s life.

“We need to know who is accountable for his death,” Kukpi7 Judy Wilson of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs said in an interview Monday. The UBCIC will be raising its concerns with the Ministry of Children and Family Development, she said.

Family demands B.C. inquiry after First Nations boy found dead in group home

Who failed Traevon? A Cree teen’s death in an Indigenous agency’s group home points to a ‘broken’ system

Traevon had been in the care of Xyolhemeylh, an agency that promised culturally appropriate care for its children but which has been flagged repeatedly in ministry audits. One, published in 2021, found that in 89 per cent of cases, the agency had no comprehensive plan for the children in its care. Just 3 per cent of children saw their social worker once a month, as mandated by the ministry. In 10 per cent of cases, children didn’t see a social worker at all in the three-year audit period.

Kukpi7 Wilson said the ministry was negligent in not addressing the problems with the agency before Traevon found himself there.

“There were warning signs – the failing audits. The ministry should have intervened with that agency and got things back on track. Those red flags were there. They could have saved his life if they intervened earlier,” she said, adding the pain this has caused Traevon’s mother is unbearable.

“That child should have been taken out and placed somewhere safe. That should have happened right away,” Kukpi7 Wilson said.

What happened to Traevon is a “canary in the coal mine,” Ms. Charlesworth said.

Minister of Children and Family Development Mitzi Dean declined Monday to comment on Traevon’s case, citing confidentiality. She also declined to say whether there have been any changes made at Xyolhemeylh after his death.

Ms. Dean did say that, in general, “we’re doing provincial changes. We know that we actually need to be making improvements to the in-care services, the services need to match the needs of children, young people who come into care. So we are now implementing specialized homes and support services.”

The ministry said in a statement later on Monday that it is moving to create an inventory of the agencies and service providers that deliver care and is ensuring that no new agencies will be added to the list of those providing care in specialized homes without approval from the provincial Director of Child Welfare.

The ministry’s statement described the moves as aimed at making transformational change, however it did not provide more details or comment on whether there would be consequences for agencies that do not meet standards for group homes.

“I can absolutely assure people that the ministry holds all of our partner agencies accountable and to high standards,” Ms. Dean said. “So where there is a review, and if deficiencies were identified, if practice hasn’t been good quality or procedures are not followed, then there will be an action plan and that is monitored by the provincial Director of Child Welfare.”

The BC Coroners Service says it is investigating Traevon’s death. A decision by Ms. Charlesworth’s office about whether to issue a public report cannot be made until after the coroner’s work has concluded.

Numerous reports – including one by B.C.’s auditor-general in 2019 – have made clear that the care provided in group homes is sometimes sub-standard and leaves B.C. youth facing extreme risks.

That report, by Carol Bellringer, concluded the ministry was warehousing Indigenous teens in rental homes staffed by people with no training or expertise in caring for profoundly traumatized, high-needs children.

“We hear from youth living in group homes all the time, who tell us: ‘This doesn’t feel safe.’ Or ‘This doesn’t feel right,’ Ms. Charlesworth said Monday.

“Little kids housed with much older kids. Co-ed facilities, where perpetrators of sexual abuse are housed with victims of sexual abuse. I’m really worried. We’ve got more and more kids with more significant needs than ever before in a system that continues to fail them.”

B.C. Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, whose Cowichan riding has one of the highest rates of children in care in the province, says that “repeated, abject failures” highlighted by the audits “show they do not actually mean anything.”

“The first question is: ‘Who failed Traevon?’ The next question is: ‘Will there be consequences for those failures?’ As long as there are no meaningful consequences, what is going to change?”

With a report from Justine Hunter

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