The Indigenous-led agency responsible for Cree teen Traevon Desjarlais-Chalifoux during his brief life doesn’t have enough resources for its social workers to get much one-on-one time with the 160 other First Nations youth in their care east of Vancouver, a manager with the organization told a coroner’s inquest into his suicide.
Melissa Celella, the team leader with Xyolhemeylh, also known as the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society, was asked Wednesday how the agency that had overseen Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux’s care since he was apprehended from his mother a day after being born in 2003 could improve.
She said more resources are needed, especially since teens who would have “aged out” of their care after becoming a legal adult had this assistance extended by the province once COVID-19 hit Canada’s West Coast. Xyolhemeylh (pronounced yoth-meeth) has eight social workers, two of whom identify as Indigenous, acting as the legal guardians for scores of teens in communities spread across the Fraser Valley, Ms. Celella said.
“A huge piece to that would, of course, be smaller caseloads,” she testified remotely from her living room in Agassiz, B.C. “The more time we can spend with at-risk youth – and actually be face-to-face with them and have that personal interaction – it serves our youth best.”
The inquest was called this spring following a Globe and Mail investigation into the September, 2020, death of the teen, whose body was discovered in his bedroom closet of his Abbotsford, B.C., group home four days after he was reported missing. The Globe investigation found serious deficiencies at Xyolhemeylh, which is one of 24 Indigenous Child and Family Service agencies charged with providing foster care to First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and youth in British Columbia.
On Wednesday, Ms. Celella, who joined the agency in 2007 and quickly rose to a management position, said the group home Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux was placed in just over a year before he died was not as good as placement with a family. But, she explained, many foster parents with traditional homes are getting too old to continue this care and these subcontractors are filling the void in spaces. The inquest has heard testimony that the teen had complained to his social worker and mother about being forced to wait outside the house when staff, employed by Rees Family Services Inc., went grocery shopping and that he did not have adequate access to food.
Brett Claxton, one of the two men who lived in the Rees home during a rotating shift of three days, said Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux was paid $5 a week to not punch or bang his head through his bedroom walls after phoning the police at the outset of this behaviour failed to stop the teen.
“Money is motivation,” said Mr. Claxton, who has been a caregiver with Rees since 2010. “It worked for him because he wasn’t hitting the wall and it worked for us because he wasn’t doing damage to the bedroom.”
Ms. Celella said Xyolhemeylh can make suggestions to a subcontractor like Rees that it change its house rules or accommodate a request from one of their foster children, such as Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux’s desire to have a female care provider in the home. But, she said, ultimately, her agency can’t force these improvements upon its partner organization.
“They do their own policies and manuals and they do their own process around what it looks like in their homes and so they really have their own level of leadership that is deciding that,” Ms. Celella said.
She added that she and Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux’s social worker were relying on the 17-year-old, who had learning disabilities, fetal alcohol syndrome, ADHD and was a past victim of sexual and physical abuse, to speak up about any desire to exit the group home in the months preceding his suicide.
“He hadn’t told us that it was somewhere he needed to be taken out of,” Ms. Celella said. “He wasn’t saying that and he had historically told us if there is a place he didn’t want.”
In its investigation, the Globe analyzed recent practice audits from Xyolhemeylh and found a pattern of omission and neglect on a range of metrics, including a failure by social workers to meet regularly with young people in their care or to plan adequately for their care. In some cases, they never met with them at all. During the course of The Globe’s investigation, Xyolhemeylh did not respond to requests for comment on its practices or on the care provided to Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux.
The inquest’s five jurors are tasked with determining when and how Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux died and making recommendations for systemic changes that could prevent other foster children from dying in similar circumstances