The case of an Ontario First Nations teenager who died by suicide and whose body was not found for nearly seven months exposes systemic gaps in the child-welfare system, says a lawyer representing his community.
The Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation and the grandmother of 16-year-old Devon Freeman are asking the provincial coroner’s office to call an inquest into his death.
Mr. Freeman hung in a tree alone for almost seven months, Sarah Clarke, the lawyer for the community, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, adding it is “shocking” to think a child would be left there alone for so long while exposed to the elements.
His body was found no more than 35 metres from his group home, she said.
“We don’t know for sure what the police did or what protocols they executed," Ms. Clarke said.
"We assume no one looked for him in the surrounding area of the group home, otherwise they would have found him. It is so hard to imagine why no one looked for him.”
The Assembly of First Nations and organizations including the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres have written letters to the coroner’s office in support of holding an inquest.
It was not Mr. Freeman’s first suicide attempt, Ms. Clarke added, saying the Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton and the group home where he was living knew he tried to hang himself previously but he was not taken to get medical treatment.
Mr. Freeman’s grandmother Pamela Freeman said he "fell through the cracks,” adding she hopes an inquest can shine a light on exactly where those cracks are so they can be sealed to prevent future deaths.
“That is all I want out of this process,” she said in a statement.
Ms. Clarke wrote the submission to the regional supervising coroner office asking for the inquest along with Ms. Freeman’s lawyer, Justin Safayeni.
The public has an interest in being made aware of the many systemic gaps and problems in a child-welfare system that contributed to Mr. Freeman’s death and put other children in similar circumstances at risk – especially if they share his Indigenous heritage, they wrote.
In a letter of support, Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, said she is aware of the “horrible tragedy” for Mr. Freeman, his family and his community.
“The whole situation is tragic and really sheds light that there is disregard for the sacredness of young lives likely because of discrimination,” she wrote.
“The clear lack of communication between Devon’s service providers demonstrates the importance of this inquest.”
First Nations young people make up a disproportionate number of children in the child-welfare system, Ms. Blackstock added, noting some come from families harmed by the residential school system and it is important to ensure they get services they need.
Cheryl Mahyr, an issues manager with the Office of the Chief Coroner, said Tuesday a section of the Coroners Act allows for a family to approach the office and state its case for an inquest in the name of the public interest.
The coroner’s office had already made a decision not to launch an inquest into Mr. Freeman’s death, Ms. Mahyr said, adding the family has now approached the office to ask the decision to be reconsidered.
The office will take the time to give the request “every consideration," she said, adding recommendations can also be made through other avenues.