Pressing for inquiry, N.L. child advocate calls Wally Rich's death a tragedy - but not unique

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As renewed scrutiny grows around the death of 15-year-old Wally Rich, Newfoundland and Labrador's child and youth advocate says the situation is a tragedy, and her office's ability to investigate is held up in bureaucratic limbo.

Rich, from Natuashish, died by suicide while at a group home in Labrador in May, nearly three years after the provincial government promised an inquiry into Innu children in care.

Jackie Lake Kavanagh, the child and youth advocate, said any ability to do her own investigation into Rich's death is on hold, as by law she cannot look at or investigate a matter until the Child Death Review Committee has completed its own review.

She has yet to receive a file from that committee, she said, and added the awaited inquiry is also standing in the way.

She wants to see if Rich's case will be included in that inquiry, which will determine whether she can proceed with her own investigation.

That's one more reason she feels the years-long delay for the inquiry is unacceptable.

"When you look at the sense of urgency, this should have been happening already, and Innu children are struggling in the system and this is a prime example of it," she said.

Kavanagh said it's inexplicable to her how the province hasn't moved ahead with the inquiry yet.

"This inquiry was committed more than three years ago, and if you look back beyond that, the Innu people were demanding and asking for that inquiry before it was committed. So, it goes back much more than three years," said Jackie Lake Kavanagh.

"I think the piece that they want is, they want answers, they want accountability and they want reconciliation, and they've said that. And I think those are very reasonable requests to make."

Submitted by Innu Nation
Submitted by Innu Nation

Troubling statistics

As of March, there were 165 Innu children in provincial care. It's clear to Kavanagh that Rich is not the only one who encountered problems with the system.

"It's not unique which is really, really tragic," she told CBC Radio's St John's Morning Show.

Her office is seeing troubling statistics in the province.

Legislative changes to the Child and Youth Advocate Act in 2018 meant her office has to be notified if a child is critically injured or dies while in care and custody, or within the last 12 months of care and custody.

"Between April 1, 2019 and the end of September this year, we have had 75 reports, and 60 per cent of those have been around suicide attempts or suicide ideation," Kavanagh said.

"That's really, really significant in this little province of ours."

Kavanagh said Indigenous children and their communities have been marginalized for a long time, and the impact of intergenerational trauma is working its way through younger generations.

She said Rich's death is heartbreaking, and it's part of larger, systemic issues that are pervasive across Canada.

"When you look at the situation across the country, in fact, between 10- and 24-year-olds suicide is the second leading cause of death, and that is really, really troubling," Kavanagh said.

"I think all of us should be left with a whole sense of unrest about that."

Kavanagh said a lot more work needs to be done, particularly a plan dedicated to youth and children in the province's suicide prevention strategy as well as services dedicated to Indigenous children based in their culture.

Where to get help:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 (phone) | 45645 (text) | http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/ (chat)

In Quebec (French): Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca

Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis

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