They loved dancing, swimming, math and science: Portraits of young people who died in care

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Intelligent, quiet and polite, Danny had “significant” learning disabilities. At age 6, he and his brothers were brought to Canada by their mother. Within two years, the family became involved with a children’s aid society over concerns about Danny’s “inappropriate” behaviour at school and that he may have been physically abused. By 11, he was in care and began self-harming. He lived in 10 placements over six and a half years, and was diagnosed with a host of mental health issues. At his request, he moved into a group home without his brothers, and did well at a special school. After reintegrating into a regular school, which did not go well, Danny did not receive recommended community-based mental health services. He drifted away from the group home and there was no indication staff knew how he was doing. The morning of his death, Danny, 16, went to his first class and left. His body was found, hanging, in a park the next day.


Anaya, outgoing and likeable, loved dancing, powwows, swimming and ice hockey. The youngest of four girls, her siblings struggled with addictions and mental health issues, and two would, like Anaya, kill themselves. Children’s aid was involved with the family before Anaya’s birth, and the girls lived with relatives under customary care. She had sporadic contact with her mother. There were concerns about emotional abuse while in care, and by age 8, Anaya reported she was drinking. There were two instances of sexual abuse, and more suspected. She started using solvents and there was self-harm and thoughts of suicide. At 11, she spent 10 weeks in a residential treatment program for Indigenous youth, but it was designed for kids older than her and she did not understand the “concept of treatment.” She left and, following the death of her second sister, a safety plan was drawn up. Back in the care of family, Anaya sent letters to a relative and friends saying she intended to kill herself. A few days later, she went to her grandfather’s home for lunch and did not return to school. Her body was found hanging in the home.


Jazmine lived in a northern Ontario city with her parents and two younger brothers. She was pleasant, polite and did well in school. After her parents separated, children’s aid became involved out of a concern she was anxious and wanted to hurt herself. There were also concerns about domestic violence and substance abuse, and Jazmine and her brothers moved in with a grandmother in a remote First Nations community 500 kilometres from home. Multiple children’s aid societies were involved and there was “minimal” evidence of co-ordinated planning for the children, though the ultimate goal was to reunite them with their family. By age 12, Jazmine was depressed. “Inconsistent and limited” counselling was provided. Her documented needs “seemed to go beyond her grandmother’s ability to cope.” On the night of her death, Jazmine visited her grandmother and had supper with relatives. Later, a sibling found her body hanging.


An excellent student and an athlete with a “big heart,” Tyra intended to go to university, away from home, and maybe work in corrections. Her parents separated early and she lived with her mom and two siblings. Children’s aid got involved over concerns of adult parties in the home, and a lack of parental supervision. As an adolescent, Tyra felt depressed and asked to be taken into care. She also disclosed being the victim of sexual abuse. She was in care until the end of her life. She received counselling and “intensive” support but remained “unsettled.” There were suicide attempts and hospitalizations. A residential treatment program allowed her to stabilize and get back to school. But self harm and more suicide attempts followed. She was helped by professionals. But she left school one afternoon and her body was found hanging from a tree. Tyra was 18.

Justin Sangiuliano

Justin, 17, died in hospital five days after losing consciousness during a physical restraint by staff at an unlicensed group home. There had been a disagreement with staff over whether he could ride his bicycle, and the restraint was used following a “behavioural escalation.” Justin was described as “sensitive and likeable.” He loved fishing and walking in the woods, and enjoyed arts and crafts and giving away his work to others. He was diagnosed with a developmental disability and mental health challenges at a young age. Children’s aid became involved with his family before his birth, and he lived with his parents and siblings for two years, and with his mom after his parents separated. At 8, his grandparents began caring for him in a kinship placement. He became a Crown ward at 10, and, just shy of turning 12, moved into an unlicensed group home 500 kilometres away, where he stayed until his death. There was no suitable place closer. There was also “minimal effort” made to provide Justin with mental health or developmental services.

Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace

Azraya grew up with an older brother and twin brother in a First Nations community in northern Ontario, surrounded by her parents and family. She was interested in fashion and had a good sense of humour. Children’s aid was involved with the family before Azraya’s birth, and throughout most of her life, over concerns related to inadequate supervision, alcohol use and domestic violence. After her older brother died of a progressive neurological disorder, Azraya, 12, moved to a nearby city to live with a relative while attending school. Four months later, she was in hospital for suicidal ideation, and she was briefly taken into care by children’s aid. After a suicide attempt, she ended up in three short placements while waiting to get into a treatment foster home in southern Ontario, where she landed for five months with one-on-one supervision. After a visit from family, she was thinking again about suicide and hospitalized. She then lived with family for six months, under a supervision order. She missed a lot of school, reported “escalating challenges at home” and asked to return to care. On the night of her death, Azraya, 14, and back in care, was out past curfew at a house party. She was brought to hospital by police, and then disappeared. Her body was found hanging two days later in a forest.

Kanina Sue Turtle

Kanina, an active child who enjoyed math and science, first came into care at age 2 and was in and out of care 10 times through her life. She was from Poplar Hill First Nation, a remote, fly-in community. Domestic violence and substance abuse were concerns, as was a “significant history” of suicide in the family. Her parents twice completed family treatment programs and reunification was the goal. After an aunt killed herself, Kanina, then 7, went for counselling. In the final year of her life, Kanina saw a number of placement changes, often following self-harm, suicidal thoughts and attempts to kill herself. She had to be medically evacuated twice from a healing centre, including five days before she died. At the healing centre, she began a relationship with Jolynn Winter, another female resident. There was “no evidence of supportive discussions” around sexual identity. In her final placement in a foster home, Kanina, 15, died by suicide. An autopsy revealed “significant evidence” of self-harm over time on her body.

Jolynn Winter

Jolynn, who lived with her dad in Wapekeka First Nation, another remote, fly-in community, was quiet and liked to draw. She was taken into care at 2 and placed in a care home operated by the Indigenous Child Wellbeing Society. After seven years, she was discharged into a private arrangement with the same caregiver until age 11. When that placement broke down, Jolynn had 20 placements over 18 months, disrupting her education. She was placed in a youth healing centre twice. That’s where Jolynn met Kanina. When Jolynn learned Kanina had died by suicide, she was admitted to the child and adolescent mental health unit of a hospital for 17 days. Except for this hospital stay, Jolynn had never been medicated. While in hospital, she spoke of her relationship with Kanina and her “feelings about the loss,” but there were no records suggesting sexual identity was ever discussed. With a shortage of mental health treatment beds, Jolynn was discharged into to an “extended home visit” with her father, pending an opening. Jolynn, 12, died by suicide at her father’s home. Like Kanina’s, her body bore the marks of self-harm.

Kassandra Finbow

Kassy — intelligent, energetic and pleasant — loved to dance, sing and do gymnastics. At the time of her death, the plan, as always, was to reunite with her mom and brother. Children’s aid had been involved in her life from age 7. She had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a mood disorder, and anxiety and was on medication, from age 11 until her death at 14. Despite many requests, her mother was “unable to obtain the type of help she felt was necessary to cope” with Kassy’s behaviour. She was admitted to residential treatment at age 11 and at 13, she went to the first of four special schools operated by residential providers or community agencies. She lived in seven placements, with the longest stint being six months. Kassy was self-harming and “was placed in vulnerable situations with people she met over social media.” Four months into her final placement at a “staff-model” foster home with two other residents, Kassy and a staff member died in a fire caused by another resident. There were “indications that the needs of the residents varied considerably and questions arose” about the ability of staff to meet a wide range of needs.

Amy Owen

Amy was from Poplar Hill First Nation, and enjoyed learning about her culture, and doing birchbark construction and beading. She was friendly, but also cautious. Children’s aid was involved with her family before her birth and through most of her life, due to concerns about mental health, parental substance abuse, domestic abuse and supervision. Amy witnessed violence, suicide attempts and deaths in the community, and started cutting early in her life. There were suicide pacts with friends and a sibling. Amy was medically evacuated many times, but did not receive a formal assessment of her needs until near the end of her life. She bounced in and out of placements, including one that was under investigation, which verified child protection concerns. Two other youth in one of the suicide pacts killed themselves. During the two weeks before she killed herself, Amy was hospitalized three times. On the day of her death, staff at her residential home checked on her regularly in her bedroom. Twenty minutes after the last visit, staff came into the room with a snack and found her hanging.


Brooklyn liked participating in Indigenous ceremonies and enjoyed horseback riding, art, cooking and gardening. One of five siblings, her family experienced the “challenges faced by her First Nation community,” including poverty, substance abuse, minimal supports and patchy access to education. She was taken into care before her first birthday, but maintained a lifelong connection with one sister. She was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome and learning disabilities. A psychiatric assessment stressed the importance of a permanent placement for Brooklyn, but attempts to find stable kin or culturally appropriate care near home were unsuccessful. By the time she was 6, she’d lived in 17 foster homes in northern Ontario. She was then moved 800 kilometres away to another foster home. She stayed there for six years with her sister, the closest to permanency she would get. The placement ended abruptly due to reasons unrelated to the children. Eight more placements followed, and her education was in disarray. Brooklyn was exhibiting behaviour earlier assessments had warned of. She also had a history of starting fires. After a series of absences, staff at her foster home modified her bedroom window so she could not sneak out of the house. On the day of her death, Brooklyn, 16, upset over having Internet access withdrawn, pushed a mattress against her door and set it on fire. Her death by smoke inhalation was ruled accidental.


Ashley liked playing cards, gaming and drawing. She also had a good sense of self, and had “detailed” discussions with doctors about the impact of drugs she was prescribed. Abandoned at birth, her grandmother was her caregiver and they lived together for 15 years in their First Nation community. As a child and through adolescence, she witnessed violence between extended family members and was sexually abused and bullied. She also witnessed the death and injury of other children. Her frequent suicide attempts resulted in medical evacuations, and her grandmother was getting too old to care for her. She went into culturally appropriate care and was in and out of hospital. There were 10 suicide attempts, and 18 placements, requiring her to move 23 times. Among other things, she was diagnosed with PTSD and had been using cannabis since she was 11. A possibility Ashley was transgender was noted in her file “but not addressed directly by any service provider.” In her last placement, she’d stopped going to school and was not receiving any therapeutic intervention, but seemed stable. Ashley was due back at 11 p.m. one night, and didn’t return. Police were called and her body was found the following evening in a park. The death was deemed to be accidental, due to drowning, or “acute ethanol intoxication.”

If you are considering suicide, there is help. Find a list of local crisis centres at the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Or call 911 or in Ontario call Telehealth at 1-866-797-0000.

Jim Rankin is a reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @Jleerankin


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