The disappearing children of Constance Lake: Kerri-Lynn Bunting

‘I need to tell people how it is now … it’s just like, my world is ripped apart.’

Kerri-Lynn Bunting had a smile that immediately grabbed your attention.

And if her smile didn’t, her laugh certainly did.

“Especially her laugh,” said her mother, Crystal Bunting.

It was loud and contagious.

“She had that laughter that nobody could forget,” said Crystal.

It’s stuff like that she misses.

Sometimes it haunts her and she can’t sleep at night, so she stays awake until her other kids wake up in the morning.

That’s when there is just enough noise in the house that she can finally rest.

It’s been like this nearly every day since Kerri-Lynn took her life in the basement of her home on Nov. 27, 2019 in Constance Lake First Nation.

She was 13.

Kerri-Lynn was struggling.

She was being bullied at school and three weeks before she died she was admitted to the local hospital with deep cuts to her arm on Nov. 6.

They stitched her wounds and informed the local child welfare agency, Kunuwanimano Child and Family Services.

“They have to follow a protocol and that protocol is to call mental health, and obviously if a child is under the age of 16, they have to call child protection services. The hospital did that, they called mental health and they called child protection services,” said Robyn Bunting, Kerri-Lynn’s aunt, who is also Constance Lake’s lead child welfare band representative.

Kunuwanimano took eight days to respond to the referral form the Constance Lake Health Care Centre, according to documents.

Two workers showed up at her home on Nov. 14.

They told Crystal they couldn’t involve Robyn because they believed she was in a conflict of interest, as the band rep.

“They said that we understand your sister is a band rep for Constance Lake and she can’t be involved. Basically I can’t tell my sister, I can’t tell her anything of what’s going on. To me that’s how it sounded like,” said Crystal.

APTN News confirmed the workers told Crystal this.

And, nearly a year later, it continues to upset Robyn.

“You don’t do that to my sister, you don’t do that to my niece who just slit her wrists, you don’t tell them that. As child protection workers, you’re supposed to help people,” she said. “You made my sister feel that she was not allowed to talk to me. That’s why my sister didn’t tell me anything, because that agency, those workers, those two workers told her that.”

The workers also spoke to Kerri-Lynn on Nov. 14, as well as her school counsellor, and didn’t intervene further believing Crystal had a handle on things.

The next time Crystal would see the workers was on the day of her daughter’s death.

That morning Crystal called Robyn and was frantic.

She just kept repeating Kerri-Lynn’s name over and over.

Robyn raced over to their house.

“I went in and my sister, my baby sister is shaking, standing there shaking. I grabbed her and I said what Crystal? I didn’t know what was going on. And then she says, she’s gone. And I said, who? Because I still didn’t know what she was talking about, I still didn’t know what was going on. She goes Kerri-Lynn, she’s gone. Gone where? I said. And then I looked at my nephew Lewis and he’s standing there crying and it hit me that she was gone,” said Robyn.

Kerri-Lynn was found hanging in the basement of her home by her younger sister.

Crystal and Robyn Bunting hold the picture of Kerri-Lynn Bunting who died by suicide in Constance Lake First Nation a year ago. Cullen Crozier/APTN photo

The Bunting sisters feel that Kunu failed to help Kerri-Lynn.

They filed a formal complaint with Ontario’s Child and Family Services Review Board.

APTN reached out to Kunu for comment.

It didn’t provide one.

But APTN has Kunu’s response to the complaint where the agency repeatedly denied any responsibility for the death.

“There were no concerns that the child was at risk in her home or with her family that would have justified the agency in obtaining a warrant to remove the child from the home,” said Kunu.

It made a point of saying, as a crisis worker in the community, Kerri-Lynn’s mother “knew of the resources available to assist her daughter.”

That doesn’t sit well with Crystal.

“I did have her signed up for counselling in Hearst. I did have her signed up for counseling in Thunder Bay and just local places where I could take her easily. The prevention services here would bring in counsellors and I would have her name on there, too,” said the mother.

But there was an urgency to the situation and Crystal needed help, even if she didn’t say it at the time.

Looking back she thinks Kunu could have helped with additional services or even just getting Kerri-Lynn to appointments. After all, they did have an open protection file for the child.

Not being able to tell her sister only made things worse.

She felt alone.

She had two other children.

“If Kunu actually helped us and supported us with the services that we needed but they failed her. They failed. They failed me, they failed my daughter. They didn’t look at her as a child,” said Crystal.

Robyn and Crystal Bunting attend to the gravesite of Kerri-Lynn in Constance Lake. Kenneth Jackson/APTN photo

As APTN reported Monday there’s a rift between the community and agency.

Robyn has been pushing for accountability with Kunu for quite some time as the lead band rep because she has seen the number of apprehensions in the community spike in recent years.

There were four children apprehended in 2017, but that number is now nearly 40, according to her statistics.

Robyn isn’t against child protection services, but wants a community-led approach to helping children and parents, as opposed to apprehending, or not helping at all.

Since her niece’s death, it’s just pushed her harder to make this happen. That started with withdrawing the complaint at the review board after realizing it didn’t have a chance creating the change she is looking for.

“I’m not going to let her death be for nothing because my Kerri-Lynn was not nothing. She died to help other kids, to help all the other kids out there. And me, as her auntie and a medicine person myself, I’m not going to stand by and let it happen to another kid,” she said.

“Kerri-Lynn is not just a number, she was my niece. I watched her come into this world. When she died, I watched us put her into the ground.”

It took Crystal nearly a year before she could speak about her daughter’s passing.

“I need to tell people how it is now,” she said. “It’s just like, my world is ripped apart.”

As for Robyn, she wishes Kunu didn’t make her sister feel she couldn’t talk to her.

“Would she still be alive today? I think she would be. I would have did everything I could to help her. I would have did everything I could to help Crystal,” she said.

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