Regional and national Indigenous organizations are calling for a thorough investigation into the death of a First Nations teen whose body was found in an Abbotsford group home four days after he was reported missing from there.
A press release issued Tuesday (Sept. 29) by a lawyer for the boy’s family and four Indigenous organizations stated that the youth was under the care of a delegated Aboriginal agency when he was found dead in his bedroom closet.
The release states that staff informed the boy’s mother on Sept. 14 that her child was missing and asked if she had heard from him. The mom said she hadn’t, and staff then filed a missing-person report.
The boy’s body was discovered on Sept. 18 in his bedroom. Abbotsford Police and the coroner deemed the death a suicide and determined there were no grounds for further investigation or an autopsy, despite repeated requests from the family for a full investigation, the press release states.
“While an autopsy has now been ordered, only after pressure from First Nations leadership in B.C. and nationally, serious concerns remain whether a thorough investigation into his death will be conducted,” the release says.
Const. Jody Thomas said the 17-year-old was reported missing to the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) on Sept. 15 by a care worker from the group home.
Thomas said the youth was familiar to police from previous missing-person reports.
“At the time of the Sept. 15th report, there was no indication that he was suicidal or using drugs or alcohol,” Thomas said.
She said the boy had no cellphone or money, and the care worker believe he was with relatives or at a friend’s house.
Thomas said several searches were conducted to find the boy, family and friends were interviewed, a cellphone used by the teen was pinged, and a bulletin was sent to all Lower Mainland police agencies.
She said police also canvassed homeless camps, shelters and resource centres in Abbotsford and Chilliwack, and all hospitals were checked.
When the teen’s body was found, the APD’s major crime unit investigated and concluded that no criminal act had occurred, Thomas said.
She said the BC Coroners Service is continuing their investigation.
“The AbbyPD expresses its sincere condolences to the family and friends of this young man and to all others affected by his tragic death,” Thomas said.
Supporting the family with their calls for a thorough investigation are the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, First Nations Summit, BC Assembly of First Nations and the Indigenous Bar Association of Canada.
Kukpi7 Judy Wilson of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs said the lives of First Nations children deserve the same attention and action as any other child.
“This young man was in the care of a system that was supposed to protect him, yet his body went unnoticed for several days. The decision of the police to not investigate thoroughly into the circumstances of his death is affirmation of the systemic racism that devalues the lives of Indigenous peoples,” she said.
Drew Lafond, president of the Indigenous Bar Association in Canada, calls on government agencies to treat the lives of Indigenous children as sacred.
“At minimum, this tragedy should be properly and thoroughly investigated independently. The decision by the assigned child coroner and Abbotsford Police to not undertake proper investigation is very concerning given the disturbing facts surrounding the death of this individual,” he said.
Terry Teegee, regional chief with the BC Assembly of First Nations, said the organizations “will be taking every measure to see justice for this young man’s life.”
This is not the first time that concerns have been raised about the death of a First Nations youth in Abbotsford while under government care.
Alex Gervais, 18, jumped to his death from a fourth-floor window of an Abbotsford hotel in September 2015 after not having been checked on by his caregiver in the 10 days prior.
Gervais’s death resulted in the 2017 report Alex’s Story: Broken Promises from B.C.’s representative for children and youth.
The report called for the Ministry of Children and Family Development to provide proper support to youth in the foster system who couldn’t return to their families. It detailed how Gervais suffered from abuse, anxiety, depression and attachment issues.
In January of this year, the ministry said changes had been made to the foster system, including hiring more staff and social workers and talking with First Nations across the province in hopes of reducing the number of Indigenous youths in the system.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development, citing privacy laws, is not commenting on the most recent death in Abbotsford, including why it took four days to find the teen’s body.
Jennifer Charlesworth, representative for children and youth, said she can’t say much about the case at this point.
“I can say that we are aware of the situation and are reviewing it. I have been in contact with the First Nations Leadership Council and my office will proceed according to our mandate,” she said.
Charlesworth said their legislation requires waiting until a coroner’s investigation is complete or until one year after the death – whichever comes first – before they can begin any investigation.
“As with all tragic deaths of children and youth receiving government services, we know that there will be important learnings from this terrible situation,” she said.