Pamela Freeman fought back tears Monday as she told a coroner’s inquest about holding her grandson the day he was born, seeing him grow into a precocious and enthusiastic child, and then grieving his death a few short years later.
As a baby, Devon Freeman crawled around with his head down “looking like a big old bear,” rushing to get a hug, his grandmother said. “I can still feel it to this day,” she said.
He grew to love cars and trucks, and his ability to recognize different makes and models at a young age surprised a few people, she said. He was interested in space and “knew the entire universe and all the planets,” with Saturn as his favourite, she said.
“You simply amazed me with your knowledge and excitement. Every day you were on the move,” she said.
“I only had you for 16 years but I’m grateful for each one. You taught me a lot,” she said. “Your story does not end here. Love does not end here.”
The teen’s death has left her grappling with “sorrow and pain,” as well as nightmares and anxiety, Pamela Freeman said.
The inquest has heard Devon Freeman was 16 when he was reported missing from the Lynwood Charlton Centre, a group home, in the Flamborough area of Hamilton in October 2017. His body was found near the home more than six months later.
Both Devon Freeman and Pamela Freeman are members of the Chippewas of Georgina Island, where the inquest began Monday. It is set to continue Wednesday in Hamilton, and is expected to hear from approximately 31 witnesses over 17 days.
The coroner’s counsel, Brett Moodie, said the inquest will explore the circumstances surrounding Devon Freeman’s death, and systemic issues that contributed to it, including public policy and legal issues related to Indigenous children and youth in the child-welfare system.
On Monday, the inquest heard from two experts on child welfare: Cindy Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and a professor at McGill University; and Barbara Fallon, a professor at the University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Child Welfare.
The overrepresentation of First Nations children in Ontario’s child welfare system is “a persistent finding” in studies since 1993, when the province began collecting that type of data every five years, Fallon said.
The data from 2018, the most recent available, show that First Nations children are seven to eight times more likely to be placed in care at the end of an investigation, she said.
The reasons children are identified for concern are also “quite different” for First Nations children, who are more likely to be listed for neglect or the “amorphous category” of risk of future maltreatment, she said.
One of the limitations of the child-welfare system is that it looks at the child and the family but isn’t able to properly consider the context for some of the risk factors that might emerge, many of which — including substance abuse — can be linked to the trauma of residential schools and the 60s scoop, Blackstock said.
“We’ve got to remember that we’re in the midst of a lack of housing, the mental health issues of sometimes children and young people, the poverty… and that often comes from the Indian Act,” she said.
Child welfare isn’t equipped to deal with those issues, and workers are at best only given the tools to help a child and family in the moment, Blackstock said. If they don’t have the right tools in the early stages, “the family goes into deeper and deeper and deeper crisis,” she said.
Blackstock said that reducing inequalities in access to public services, and making sure public services are culturally relevant to the child, is “really critical to kind of turning the tide on this.”
Solutions have been documented over decades in repeated reports and inquests, she noted. “The problem isn’t the lack of solutions, the problem is a lack of implementation of the solutions.”