Mental health worker testifies at coroner's inquest into death of Indigenous youth in care

A coroner's inquest is looking into the death of Traevon Chalifoux-Desjarlais, 17, who was found dead in his Abbotsford group home bedroom in 2020. (Submitted by Sarah Rauch - image credit)
A coroner's inquest is looking into the death of Traevon Chalifoux-Desjarlais, 17, who was found dead in his Abbotsford group home bedroom in 2020. (Submitted by Sarah Rauch - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details. 

The mental health worker assigned to Traevon Chalifoux-Desjarlais said the Cree teen would have benefited from having an Indigenous person or elder as part of his care team to provide a sense of cultural safety.

"Our team has asked for that," said Caleb Reardon, outreach counsellor with Indigenous Children and Youth Mental Health. "I believe it just comes down to a budgeting thing."

Reardon was testifying on day six of the coroner's inquest into the apparent 2020 suicide of the 17-year-old while in care. Chalifoux-Desjarlais was found hanging in his group home bedroom closet in September 2020, four days after he was first reported missing by a group home staffer.

Reardon said he had a double caseload of clients and described his work situation in Abbotsford as "fairly desperately understaffed," similar to the testimony last week from Traevon's guardian social worker.

The court heard that Traevon stopped taking his medication in the months before his death, which may have contributed to a rise in self-harming behaviour, including banging holes in his bedroom wall with his head and cutting up his mattress and sheets. COVID-19 restrictions exacerbated issues by limiting the in-person contact he had with various care team personnel.

'Make everything feel better'

Reardon said Traevon asked him for a medication "that would just make everything feel better."

The group home on Ware Street in Abbotsford was run by Rees Family Services, contracted by Indigenous child welfare provider Xyolhemeylh, a delegated agency of the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Abbotsford Police Department/B.C. Coroners Service
Abbotsford Police Department/B.C. Coroners Service

Donna Pittman, Rees family services director of operations, told the inquest that after Traevon's death, procedures around searching for a missing youth had changed to require staff to search the entire home and perimeter "so we could be 100 per cent certain the person missing is not at the premises."

She said previously, staff could only search a youth's bedroom in special circumstances, for instance, if there was something burning or an incident of violence.

In earlier testimony, group home worker Murray McMaster said he searched Traevon's room "multiple times" in the days after reporting him missing on Sept. 14, 2020, and sent another staff member to search it as well.

Traevon's body was found hanging in the closet by an Abbotsford police officer on Sept. 18. The officer also found three suicide notes on his bedside table and floor.

Pittman said six of the eight group homes Rees currently operates house Indigenous youth in care, but she was not aware of any Indigenous caregivers working for Rees.

Earlier evidence given by Traevon's mother, psychiatrist and guardianship social worker paints a picture of a vulnerable young man who faced overwhelming challenges in his short life, including an intellectual disability. He was apprehended into government care at birth and was moved a number of times growing up between the homes of relatives.

The court heard that Traevon was considered a high-risk youth with complex needs and had a history of going AWOL.

Coroner's inquests do not find blame; rather, they are meant to serve the public interest in determining the cause and circumstances of a death. The jury hearing the evidence can make recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths in the future.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Here are some warning signs:

  • Suicidal thoughts.

  • Substance abuse.

  • Purposelessness.

  • Anxiety.

  • Feeling trapped.

  • Hopelessness and helplessness.

  • Withdrawal.

  • Anger.

  • Recklessness.