(Kanina Sue Turtle, left, Courtney Scott and Amy Owen.)
APTN National News
The Ontario NDP called on the province Tuesday to make inquests mandatory in all child welfare deaths, something First Nation leaders have been asking for following the deaths of four First Nations girls living in group homes since late October.
NDP MPP Monique Taylor called on the province during question period to make inquests mandatory.
“This is a crisis with our most vulnerable children. Will the minister institute mandatory inquests into the deaths of children in care?” said Taylor, the NDP critic for Children and Youth Services.
Minister Michael Coteau responded it is sad anytime a child dies in the province and explained the process the Chief Coroner of Ontario takes when investigating the deaths.
“There are steps in place,” said Coteau, Minister of Children and Youth Services.
Their exchange can be seen in the video below.
Coteau said as much to APTN National News when asked Friday.
“The Chief Coroner and his staff are experts in their field and are in the best position to determine whether an inquest is necessary,” Coteau said in an emailed statement. “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 government intends to release a “blueprint” on improving residential care of kids in child protection in the coming weeks, Coteau told APTN.
He said it will introduce a “new model” in child and youth death reviews but stopped short of saying the government would make the necessary legislative changes to make inquests mandatory.
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, he said.
“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.
The Ontario government doesn’t track the number of 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.
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.