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Ashley Smith’s mother, Coralee Smith, walks into Coroners Courts in Toronto to testify at the inquest into her daughter’s death in custody. “You never saw that girl without a smile on her face,” she told the inquest. “Most of her life, she was smiling and happy.”Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press

A teenager who strangled herself in her prison cell was a happy, independent child but who became obsessed with knowing details of her parentage, her adoptive mother said Wednesday.

Testifying at the inquest into her daughter's death, Coralee Smith said Ashley showed few signs of problems growing up but that changed drastically in her teen years.

"Most of her life, she was smiling and happy," Smith testified.

Coroner's counsel Marg Creal asked what Ashley liked as a child:

"Oh my goodness, what did Ashley like? Quiet time and doing her own thing. She loved her doll," Smith answered, her hands twisting a piece of paper.

"Ashley was very independent."

Beyond some report card comments that Ashley talked too much or could be disruptive in class, there were no issues at school until about Grade 8, Smith testified.

"I had no calls, no reports before that," she said.

In Grade 9, however, Ashley was expelled for disruptive behaviour, effectively ending her formal education and setting off a family quest to find help for her.

At one point, Ashley saw a psychiatrist who decided Ashley was "just a normal teenager," Smith said.

"I'm too fat and I have acne," was Ashley's take on the session, her mom said.

"Coming out of that, I'm feeling rest assured that things aren't so bad."

But the acting out would increase, and Ashley found herself in trouble with the law.

She would go to a residential facility for an assessment that was supposed to last 34 days but it ended after just 21 days because of her disruptive behaviour.

"She graduated early," Smith said ruefully.

A psychiatric report from the stay concluded: "She has a huge personality issue in emotional borderline tendencies,"

Ashley was sent home with a prescription for the drug Zoloft.

Smith said she didn't like giving her daughter drugs, and said she never saw the worst of her daughter's behaviour.

"At home, Ashley was a mom's girl."

Smith, of Moncton, N.B., described how she and her husband of two years, Harold, adopted Ashley as a three-day-old in early 1988.

The relationship with Harold soon ended and Smith got involved with Herb Gorber, when Ashley was about 3 1/2 years old.

Ashley was a home body, who would call her mom early in the morning to come and get her if she spent the night with relatives, Smith said.

Her daughter always wanted to know about her adoptive father, but Smith said she didn't have much information to give her.

"He never even sent a birthday card or a Christmas card," she said of her ex. "I can see how that would play on a little girl."

Smith also said she had held off telling Ashley about her biological parents because she felt the girl was just too young to deal with the information.

Smith, the first witness who is not connected to prison or medical systems, described visiting her daughter both in youth detention and later in adult prisons.

She had little idea about Ashley's life behind bars, the inquest heard.

"I didn't press her for anything," Smith said. "I guess it was self-preservation."

At a psychiatric prison facility in Saskatoon, Ashley confided in her mother that guards had assaulted her.

"She was held down and punched with closed fist," Smith said she was told.

"I'm beside myself. You have no one to go to. Your whole world is just twirling."

At the start of her evidence, presiding coroner Dr. John Carlisle expressed "heartfelt and sincere condolences" for her daughter's death.

Smith said she had watched the inquest for the first two weeks via webcast.

"The family took the computer away from me. They didn't think I should be watching."

Ashley Smith was 19 when she strangled herself in her cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., as guards, ordered not to intervene, watched. She had spent most of her last three years in segregation cells.

Smith continues her testimony on Thursday.