A counsellor who worked with a 17-year-old Cree boy who died at an Abbotsford group home told a B.C. coroners inquest Monday the teen had spoken about self-harm and displayed declining mental health in the months before his death.
Traevon Desjarlais was found hanging in the closet of his room at the home on Sept. 18, 2020.
Caleb Reardon was Desjarlais’ counsellor between 2019 and 2020, the years he lived at the home operated by Rees Family Services. The facility was under contract from the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society and funded by the provincial government.
Reardon described how Desjarlais was reluctant to open up, had trust issues, and was self-medicating with cannabis.
The inquest heard that Reardon noticed a considerable deterioration in Desjarlais’ cognition over the course of their sessions, and that it became obvious the teen had stopped taking medication prescribed by his psychiatrist.
Desjarlais’ speech became more disorganized and circular, Reardon testified, adding he did not know if the things he was communicating were sinking in.
The pair stopped meeting weekly in March 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, and Reardon did not see the teen for three months, he told the inquest.
During the summer of 2020, the teen became increasingly agitated, as evidenced by the damage he caused in his room at the group home, the inquest heard.
Desjarlais would often talk of self-harm, but Reardon testified he didn’t associate that with suicidal ideation but rather with a general sense of anger and frustration.
At one point the 17-year-old asked him in a session, “What if I hurt myself, would anyone care?” The counsellor testified he assured the young man there were plenty of people who did care and offered strategies to work through his waves of emotion.
Reardon also testified about a chronic staff shortage through the Aboriginal Child and Youth Mental Health program, and a lack of culturally appropriate treatment.
There were no Indigenous counsellors on staff in 2020, and access to elders in the community as touch points were difficult to find and establish, he said.
Rees Family Services director of operations Donna Pittman also testified Monday, telling the inquest that the service provider operates eight homes, six of which focus on Indigenous youth.
As far as she could recollect, there are no Indigenous foster parents, she said.
Pittman’s testimony also touched on the contentious question of why Desjarlais’s body wasn’t found for four days after he was believed to be missing.
She told the inquest that Ministry of Children and Family Development policy in 2020 didn’t allow staff to enter the rooms of clients, but that the policy has since been changed.
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Last week, the inquest heard from foster parent Murray McMaster who was on shift at the home over the four days Desjarlais was thought to be missing.
McMaster was unable to explain why the boy wasn’t located, but told the inquest he checked the room numerous times and looked under the bed, but apparently did not check the closet.
The inquest has previously heard that Desjarlais was taken from his birth mother as an infant, and spent about 15 years living with relatives.
He moved to the group home in 2019 when family members were no longer able to meet his special needs.
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.
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 Prevention, Depression 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.