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Police, child welfare system failed First Nations teen, says aunt of Azraya Kokopenace

14-year-old went missing within hours of having contact with police, hospital staff

Azraya Kokopenace

Azraya Kokopenace, 14, was found dead in Kenora on April 17. She was last seen two days earlier, leaving the hospital late at night after she had been dropped off there by police. (Ontario Provincial Police)

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Family and friends of Azraya Kokopenace say the teenager did not get the help she needed to save her life.

The 14-year-old from Grassy Narrows First Nation disappeared on April 15 after provincial police dropped her off at the hospital in Kenora, Ont.

She was last seen leaving the Lake of the Woods District Hospital at 11:20 that night, according to police. She was found dead two days later in the woods nearby. 

"Pretty much everyone failed her," said Azraya's aunt, Lorenda Kokopenace. "They were supposed to be there helping and protecting her and they failed her."

Kokopenace said a child welfare agency was involved with Azraya and that the teen was in distress, looking for help, the night she disappeared in Kenora.

Provincial police are not releasing the cause of her death. A spokesperson said foul play is not suspected. 

"What I think is that she needed help, like she needed a friend to be there with her for what she was going through at that time," said Darwin Fobister, a 19-year-old from Grassy Narrows.

Darwin Fobister

'They should have watched her. There should have always been someone there with her,' says Darwin Fobister, 19. (Darwin Fobister/Facebook)

He said Azraya was his "best friend" and he had helped comfort her on previous occasions when she expressed suicidal thoughts.

"They should have watched her, especially since she is a suicidal person," Fobister said. "There should have always been someone there with her."

Azraya was "a really bright and smart girl," Lorenda Kokopenace said, "but she was also grieving."

Azraya's older brother, Calvin Kokopenace, was 17 years old when he died in 2014 from symptoms related to mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, Kokopenace said.

Recurring issues at play

The provincial advocate for children and youth, Irwin Elman, said he is not familiar with the specific details of Azraya's death, but that he sees a pattern in the deaths of First Nations children across the province.

"The same issues that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission outlined, that lead to completely difficult lives that First Nations children face in many of their communities, are ones that are completely at play here," said Elman.

Kokopenace said her family needs to know why the system failed Azraya so other children don't face the same risks.

"I want them to have that access, to feel that love, to feel that safeness to deal with whatever they have to deal with, instead of being turned away," she said.

Grassy Narrows sacred fire

A sacred fire and community gathering from April 29 to May 3 was organized by the Grassy Narrows Youth Organization and mothers from Grassy Narrows, 'to light the way for our Youth, for all Anishinaabe youth, for all youth struggling for a better future for their communities.' (Grassy Narrows Youth Organization)

Anishinaabe Abinoojii Family Services would not confirm that Azraya was a client, but the executive director said the child welfare agency is working with the coroner on the investigation into her death, as well as offering supports to her family and her community.

Calls from CBC News to the Lake of the Woods Hospital in Kenora were not returned.

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