(Kanina Sue Turtle, left, Courtney Scott and Amy Owen all died in child welfare homes within a six-month period.)
An investigation into the deaths of children living in residential care, including seven Indigenous children, has found potential criminality according to Ontario’s chief coroner.
“There has been potentially involvement of police and potentially criminality in some of the cases we are reviewing,” Dr. Dirk Huyer told APTN News.
APTN asked if that involves the death of Kanina Sue Turtle, 15, who died by suicide inside her Sioux Lookout foster home Oct. 29, 2016, and is the subject of a recent APTN investigation.
Huyer wouldn’t say which of the cases he’s reviewing are involved. He did say his office hasn’t officially notified the police to investigate as of last week.
Huyer is leading what he’s calling an “expert panel” review of 11 deaths between Jan. 1 2014 and July 31, 2017 that occurred with children in protective services and living in residential care, like foster and group homes.
The review also includes homes operated by child welfare agencies, known as agency operated homes (AOH) that are staffed by a “live-in parent.”
Turtle was living in an AOH owned by Tikinagan Child and Family Services when she filmed her suicide. Despite being suicidal she was left alone for about 45 mins according to the video, which was recently reviewed by APTN.
Huyer met with the family of Turtle twice, including in January when he started making trips to the communities as part of the review.
While meeting with the family of Turtle in Poplar Hill First Nation he viewed, and obtained, two videos. One video was of her death, which he called “devastating” and an attempt from the day before on Oct. 28, 2016.
APTN has also reviewed that video. Turtle is by some trees when she attempts to hang herself holding her iPod.
Turtle didn’t say anything in the video of her death but APTN can report, for the first time, what she said in the video Oct. 28.
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” Turtle says. “I’m sorry for what … umm… I’m going to do.”
The video is just over a minute when she stops recording.
APTN has reported the family still questions, 16 months later, how Turtle could have been left alone so long when she was suicidal, and had been in hospital for self-harming at least twice in the nine days prior to her death.
Turtle’s mother Barbara Suggashie said she has never been told.
The Ontario government has also refused to say if any action was taken against the home. Tikinagan has refused to comment claiming privacy for the family.
Huyer also met with the family of Amy Owen during his trip to Poplar Hill. Owen, 13, died by suicide in an Ottawa group home April 17, 2017. APTN has previously reported that Owen was in the hospital multiple times in the weeks before her death inside the group home owned and operated by Mary Homes.
Mary Homes surrendered its license for that home after an investigation into Owen’s death. They own and operate several others in Ottawa.
We have Amy Owen's autopsy report.
— Kenneth Jackson (@afixedaddress) December 8, 2017
Huyer said the expert panel review is something he thought about carefully and was triggered by an initial review of the deaths.
“We saw potential concerns about the service and the care that was provided to the youth … when they were in these care settings,” he said.
One example he provided was whether the children had the proper supervision, like 24-hour observation, known as one-to-one care. That’s when a worker is assigned to the child around the clock.
And whether the so-called care facilities met “the expectations that society … might have.”
Of the 11 deaths under review, seven were suicides, one homicide and all had a history of mental health challenges, according to the terms of reference provided by the coroner’s office.
The terms also further outlined the causes that sparked the review. They include potentially being placed in the wrong homes based on the children’s needs, training and qualifications of caregivers, availability of treatment, how children were placed in homes that had less requirements, like foster care compared to group homes, and the oversight provided by children’s aid societies.
It also found concerns with the Ministry of Children and Youth Services’ oversight of the placements.
Critics of the review have said the expert panel is essentially operating in the dark and an inquest into the deaths would put the deaths under public scrutiny.
It’s not lost on Huyer.
“I haven’t said we wouldn’t do an inquest into these cases but this is a step that allows us to look at things in greater depth with experts that have specific knowledge,” said Huyer.
He said the review allowed them to get started right away, while an inquest would take a number of years to get started.
It would also limit the scope.
“It allows us not to be narrowed down by the scope as much, because when you have an inquest there’s a lot of lawyers and they narrow it down,” said Huyer. “They define what we can look at, whereas the panel has a bit broader scope.”
He believes it will also allow him to potentially make recommendations to have immediate impact.
The report is expected to be complete by late spring or early summer and it will be made public said Huyer.
“It’s an important topic. I feel very strong about this. We have dedicated a significant amount of resources,” he said.
He said all files on each child, including hospital and police records, have been gathered since December. The coroner’s office is interviewing the families and all the information will be reviewed by a panel of seven experts.
The review will also hear from youth, care providers and agencies.