Lessons from 16-year-old’s life and death form a legacy that is changing how Indigenous youth who are in contact with the child welfare system are treated
Hamilton Spectator: The voice of Devon Russell James Freeman — Muska’abo — has been heard.
Devon was many things: a 16-year-old Hamilton boy trying to find his way; a member of Chippewas of Georgina Island disconnected from his land and community; a beloved grandson, brother and nephew who loved to ride his bike and was good with his hands; a boy forever grieving the death of his mom; and a youth with complex mental-health needs who was failed by the system meant to help him.
After four weeks of testimony at an inquest into his death, Devon is also a changemaker. The lessons from his life and death form a legacy that is changing how Indigenous youth who are in contact with the child welfare system are treated.
On Friday, the five-person jury at his inquest made 75 sweeping recommendations aimed at:
- improving communication within and between child welfare and other agencies,
- better flagging suicidal risk,
- more meaningfully involving First Nations communities in care and
- adequate funding for organizations to do this work.
The recommendations includes using Devon’s story as a training module and “Devon’s Principle” — a child’s right to return to their First Nation community if they are involved in child welfare.
Devon’s grandmother Pam, who pushed for the inquest to happen, said the recommendations went above and beyond what she hoped.
“We want change, we don’t want this to happen again,” she said.
Shannon Crate, Devon’s band representative from Georgina Island, worked alongside Pam to push for the inquest to happen. She too, emotionally, said she was “overwhelmed with gratitude” for the jury and recommendations. In particular she liked the idea of Devon’s Principle as a legacy to the teen.
“That is so significant for all kids to know where they came from and where they belong, and who loves them,” she said.
The inquest began on Georgina Island. The First Nation community on Lake Simcoe is where Pam grew up until being forced to leave for school; Devon never lived there but was a member. That is where his spirit name — Muska’abo (Red One Standing) — was first spoken.
The rest of the inquest took place at the Hamilton Convention Centre where the jury heard from witnesses involved in Devon’s care and witnesses who shed light on how our community must do better.
Devon was living at Lynwood Charlton Centre’s Flamborough site, a residential care home for youth with complex mental-health and behavioural needs. He was in the care of Hamilton Children’s Aid Society after Pam had no other choice to get him help. The inquest heard not one agency or person knew the full picture of what was going on with Devon, including several previous suicide attempts. He was unhappy at Lynwood and ran away often — he was reported missing 38 times.
When he disappeared the final time on Oct. 7, 2017, there was no ground search and his case wasn’t initially flagged as a high priority by Hamilton police, who also didn’t know about past suicide attempts.
But that disappearance wasn’t like the previous ones, where he would often show up after a few days at the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre and make his way back to Lynwood. More than six months later, on April 12, 2018, his body was found in a pine tree on the grounds of Lynwood. He died by hanging; his death was ruled a suicide.
The inquest heard his death surprised many of the people involved in his care. But it was not inevitable.
There were multiple people and organizations with standing at the inquest, including those who knew or worked with Devon: Pam, Georgina Island, Hamilton CAS, Lynwood, Hamilton police, plus individual officers and child welfare workers. Others with standing included the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS), the Anishinabek Nation — a political organization representing multiple First Nations including Georgina Island — and legal advocacy organizations that intervened in the public interest, Justice for Children and Youth and Aboriginal Legal Services.
- Lawyers for the parties put forward a slate of 58 suggested recommendations, most of which were adopted by the jury, with some small changes.
- There were also 16 suggested recommendations, largely tied to funding, that MCCSS alone did not endorse.
- The jury made all 16 of those recommendations, calling for “direct, sustainable, equitable, and adequate” funding to First Nations, children’s aid societies and residential service providers to improve care, including Indigenous-led, culturally restorative practices.
- They also recommended the province collect and analyze data to determine whether child welfare interventions improve outcomes for children and youth.
The jury made several additional recommendations beyond those suggested to them. This included:
- expanding recommendations made to Hamilton police to include all police across Ontario.
- These include creating a dedicated missing person unit,
- training officers and changing how risk assessments are done in missing person cases.
- They also recommended the province create an expert panel on best practices to revise the child welfare funding formula to address the needs of Indigenous youth.
At the conclusion of the inquest, the jury foreperson thanked Georgia Island for their welcome and also the lessons from leaders, including Elder John Rice who spoke at the inquest opening and was its final witness. She noted the “courage and strength” shown by Pam. The jury was “deeply saddened by the loss of such a brave, smart and handsome” boy.
Then everyone gathered in a circle for a closing ceremony, organized by the Hamilton Regional Indian Centre. This included a teaching and honour song before Devon’s sister Lexi was presented a blanket, and Pam a feather.
Crate presented everyone at the inquest with a beaded key-chain bearing Devon’s picture, along with paintings for each juror and a quilt stitched with Devon’s photographs for Pam.
Many of the people who participated in the inquest have emotionally said this process has forever changed how they view their work. Pam said “that is what impresses me most” and makes her the most optimistic for change.
The recommendations made by the jury are not legally binding, but each of the named parties must respond and state if and how they are following each recommendation.