Mandatory inquests in child welfare deaths? Province appears to be sticking to status quo

(The arson unit continues to investigate a fire that killed Courtney Scott, 16, April 21 at a group home in Ottawa that is now boarded up. Mark Blackburn/APTN photo)

Kenneth Jackson
APTN National News
The Ontario government intends to release a “blueprint” on improving residential care of kids in child protection in the coming weeks but appears to be sticking to the status quo about mandatory inquests into deaths.

First Nation leaders have been demanding mandatory inquests due to the deaths of four First Nations girls living in group homes since October.

APTN National News asked Children and Youth Services Minister Michael Coteau last week if he was going to be doing just that.

While Coteau said, in an emailed statement, that the blueprint will introduce a “new model” in child and youth death reviews he deflected to the current practice of the Chief Coroner for Ontario making the decision to call an inquest.

“The Chief Coroner and his staff are experts in their field and are in the best position to determine whether an inquest is necessary,” said Coteau. “If a decision to hold an inquest is made, the ministry will cooperate and provide assistance as requested.”

Nishnawbe Aski Nation has been pushing the province to make legislative changes so that inquests are mandatory, while also calling for an inquest into the deaths of the four First Nations girls.

“Inquests are not mandatory under the Coroners Act for the deaths of youth in care, but we have asked the Office of the Chief Coroner to exercise discretion and call an inquest into these tragic losses,” NAN Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum said in a press release last week.

All the deaths have happened to girls living in group homes far away from their communities.

The body of Tammy Keeash, 17, was found May 7 in Thunder Bay. Police have determined she drowned and do not suspect foul play. She was living in a group at the time of her death but was from North Caribou Lake First Nation about 500 km north of Thunder Bay.

Courtney Scott, 16, died April 21 in Ottawa when a fire broke out in her group home. She was the only one not to get out. Ottawa police say the fire is suspicious and under investigation by the arson unit. She was from Fort Albany First Nation on the western shores of James Bay.

Amy Owen, 13, is suspected of dying by suicide April 17 in different Ottawa group home.

Kanina Sue Turtle, 15, is also suspected of dying by suicide Oct. 29 in Sioux Lookout.

Both Owen and Turtle were from Poplar Hill First Nation near the Ontario/Manitoba border.

The Ontario government doesn’t track the number the Indigenous children living in group homes as recently reported by APTN.

Tracking children in child protection is something Coteau said he hopes to improve with the new blueprint.

“This will support better reporting back to Indigenous communities, for example about the number of children from the north receiving residential services in the south,” said Coteau.

Last December, the province took the first step to improve the tracking of children in protection that will require Children’s Aid Societies to keep race-based data through Bill 89, the Supporting Children, Youth and Families Act.

But the bill is expected to improve other areas, as well.

“If passed, it would allow the minister to appoint inspectors who can conduct announced and unannounced licensing inspections; enhance the criteria to obtain and keep a license for residential settings for children and youth; publish licensing, compliance, and other information about licensed residential settings in Ontario,” said Coteau.

An all-party legislative committee has completed a review of amendments to Bill 89 said Irwin Elman, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.

“While the government’s new piece of legislation and blueprint for reform to improve the quality of care of residential services offer some measure of hope, there is still a great deal of work to be done in the development of regulation and policy, and implementation in order to make a real difference in the lives of children in care and their families,” Elman said in a release Sunday.

Coteau said to say the current system doesn’t always work is an understatement.

“We need to get this transformation right,” said Coteau. “That’s why we will be releasing in the coming weeks a blueprint for reform that focuses on improving the quality of care and enhancing oversight of the residential services system.”

A spokesperson for the coroner said last week a determination on whether to call an inquest into the deaths will be made once the investigations are finished.

The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies said Monday it also supports a coroner’s inquest into the recent deaths.

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