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Social worker and guardian testifies at inquest into death of Cree teen at Abbotsford group home

An inquest into the death of 17-year-old Traevon Desjarlais was called by the BC Coroners Service on Fri. April 29, 2022. Desjarlais, a First Nations youth, was found dead in the closet of his Abbotsford, B.C. group home on Sept. 18, 2020.
An inquest into the death of 17-year-old Traevon Desjarlais was called by the BC Coroners Service on Fri. April 29, 2022. Desjarlais, a First Nations youth, was found dead in the closet of his Abbotsford, B.C. group home on Sept. 18, 2020. Supplied

A BC Coroners Service inquest into the death of a Cree teen at an Abbotsford, B.C., group home in two years ago has heard from the social worker entrusted with his care.

Traevon Desjarlais was found hanging in the closet of his room at the home operated by the  Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society, a provincial government contractor, on Sept. 18, 2020.

Read more: Inquest begins into death of Cree teen found in closet of Abbotsford group home

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Tuesday’s proceedings began with testimony from a psychologist who treated Desjarlais, who described how the teen had anxiety and post-traumatic stress syndrome-type symptoms. The inquest heard how the 17-year-old had been prescribed antipsychotic medication and medication to treat his ADHD.

Social worker Lynsie Thompson told the inquest that Desjarlais would often stop taking his medication, and that when he did so he would become less responsive and less engaged.

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Thompson testified that she reported worrying behaviour in the spring of 2020. The teen’s thoughts seemed altered and he would fixate on things and mumble, she said.

Click to play video: 'Mother testifies at inquest into son’s death while in Abbotsford group home'
Mother testifies at inquest into son’s death while in Abbotsford group home

The inquest heard that Desjarlais appeared to have settled into the group home in December 2019, but that by the following spring he had begun banging his head against the walls, and at one point ripped up his mattress with a sharp object.

She testified that while police were called to the home multiple times, they appeared to treat the incidents more as property damage matters than a mental health issue.

The inquest also heard how Thompson assumed guardianship of the teen when she assumed the file full time.

As his guardian, she was responsible for registering him for school, ensuring he got to appointments and taking him shopping. She testified that she would often pool her own money to help buy him gifts.

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“He was an amazing young man. He was quiet. He was polite. He was kind,” she testified, becoming visibly emotional.

Desjarlais was under a custody order (CCO), and spent nearly 15 years living with relatives after being taken from his birth mother before moving into the group home in 2019 when they could no longer meet his special needs.

On Monday, the inquest heard testimony from Desjarlais’ mother Samantha Chalifoux, who described how after she learned he was missing she knocked on doors and called his friends as she searched for him.

Her son had been reported missing four days earlier, and Chalifoux told the inquest a staff member called to ask if she had seen him, telling her that his room had been checked.

In a voice filled with emotion, Chalifoux described Desjarlais as “outgoing,” saying he was happy spending time with his younger brother and he wanted to secure a good job.

The five-member coroner’s jury will hear evidence from witnesses under oath, but the inquest is not a fault-finding inquiry. A statement from the coroner said the jury will make recommendations on ways to prevent deaths in similar circumstances.

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If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911. 

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 — all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.

For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Learn more about how to help someone in crisis on the Government of Canada website.

— with files from the Canadian Press

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