The suicide of a 16-year-old boy whose body was found nearly seven months later just steps from the back door of his Ontario group home will be the subject of an inquest.
Devon Freeman’s family and community, the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation on Lake Simcoe, have been seeking an inquest since last year and made a formal request to the Hamilton regional coroner’s office in December.
Pam Freeman, Mr. Freeman’s grandmother, told The Globe and Mail that she welcomes the coroner’s decision. The search for answers has been agonizing for the family and on a personal level, she said.
“I’m surprised I survived it,” Ms. Freeman said. “You run every scenario through your mind; what could have happened. What if I die and I never know what happened to him? All the what ifs.”
Mr. Freeman’s case has reignited the push in Ontario for mandatory inquests for cases involving children who die in provincial care.
His remains were found by another group home resident in April, 2018, who had accidentally thrown a ball into the tree line that separates the property from a farmer’s field.
In a submission to the coroner’s office, the lawyers for the family and the First Nation argued that an inquest would shed light on any oversights and failures that might have led to Mr. Freeman’s death and help prevent similar tragedies.
A date for the inquest has yet to be announced. There is no time limit between the date of death and the convening of an inquest. The coroner’s office said details will be provided at a later date.
An inquest is conducted by a jury and is not a trial, but rather a process designed to be a “dispassionate public examination into the facts” to draw attention to the circumstances of a death, according to the Ontario government.
Months prior to his death, Mr. Freeman tried to take his life at the Lynwood Charlton Centre group home in May, 2017.
Lawyers representing his family and community said they were not alerted to that attempt, nor was it disclosed to the Hamilton Police Service at the time of his disappearance. The lawyers said this “communication failure” proved to be critical because it changed the way the police approached the case – that they saw Mr. Freeman as a runaway rather than a child at serious risk of self-harm.
“By examining what went wrong in Devon’s case, we can learn from his death to help prevent similar tragedies in the future," said Shannon Crate, a band representative for the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Thursday that Mr. Freeman’s suicide while in care is “yet another indication of the myriad of problems in the child-welfare system that directly harm our young people.”
“It’s clear that this tragedy requires a closer investigation," he said.
Mr. Freeman was in the care of the Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton and was a resident of the group home’s Flamborough site.
Lynwood Charlton Centre’s executive director Alex Thomson said Thursday it “will fully participate in the public inquest, with a hope that the results of the inquest provide the family, and all who cared for Devon, answers, solutions and closure they need.”
Bryan Shone, the executive director of the Children’s Aid Society, said it also supports the decision of the coroner to call an inquest into Mr. Freeman’s death.
“We are committed to working together with Devon’s family, Georgina Island First Nation and our partners in the community to help identify and implement recommendations that would reduce the risk of a tragedy like Devon’s death from happening again,” he said.
Sarah Clarke, the lawyer representing Chippewas of Georgina Island, said that significant work and advocacy will be required to ensure the jury’s eventual recommendations are acted upon.
It is a “victory” the inquest is happening, she said, adding there is “much work to do.”
The coroner’s office and the province undertake a review after a child dies, but there are no automatic inquests, such as when an inmate dies or someone dies at a construction site.
Former provincial children’s advocate Irwin Elman and a number of Indigenous leaders support shifting that policy. Mr. Elman said Thursday an inquest must honour Mr. Freeman so “his family, friends and community can then find solace in the fact that in his death he will find the respect he never found in his life.”
NDP MPP Sol Mamakwa said the recommendations must be fully implemented and that he hopes this case will lead to compulsory inquests of every child who dies in the child-welfare system, adding that “too many Indigenous children die under the system."
With a report from Laura Stone