By: Allya Davidson
Chazz Petrella had an idyllic childhood in Cobourg, Ontario - 4 older siblings, loving parents, a hobby farm. But that all changed when his rages became too much for his family to handle. He was diagnosed with mental illness at age ten and was eventually on the files of nine agencies and services - including residential placements. Despite all of this care, he committed suicide just after he turned 12. His parents are now calling for an inquest into his death. And they’re not alone.
Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Irwin Elman is pushing the provincial coroner to launch an inquest into Chazz’s death. “How does that 12-year-old boy end up hanging from a tree? I want to know” Elman tells the fifth estate as part of its investigation into Chazz’s death. “There’s a 12-year-old boy who has by all accounts some real strengths, [is] really engaging and for a number of years has had services in his life, people in his life.”
Chazz started life as a ball of energy. He was into everything - from skateboarding to bikes to graffiti art. His mother, Janet Petrella-Ashby tells the fifth estate’s Gillian Findlay, “Chazz was always full of energy, loved to try anything. He loved to play. He loved life, he loved everything. He really did.”
Growing up 90 minutes outside of Toronto in Cobourg, Ontario gave Chazz and his siblings plenty of opportunities to play. He could often be found trying daredevil stunts with best friend Keegan Ellison. “What we liked to do was we’d go over and climb fences and and jump off structures.” The two would then post their stunts on Chazz’s YouTube Channel.
But soon after he started school, Chazz’s teachers began reporting attention and aggression problems. Chazz switched schools but nothing seemed to help. His pediatrician thought it was a sure sign of ADHD and put him on medication. But that didn’t help either and the drugs kept him awake at night.
Older sister Gia remembers the turmoil of living with Chazz, “It was very hard. Not only did our relationship with Chazz suffer but our relationships with each other suffered. We weren’t talking as much… Our family fun nights weren’t anything anymore without someone getting upset or frustrated or breaking something.”
Whatever was wrong, Chazz didn’t understand his own feelings. Sometimes he would need to get away and be out his bedroom window and into the woods. His family would often find him just sitting in a tree.
His mother, Janet tells the fifth estate: “He would say he can’t shut his brain off. He would say he can’t think, he can’t control it and I think it was really hard for him because he couldn’t articulate how he felt.” As he got older, his behaviour got worse - he would fly into rages where he would break things and threaten to hurt himself and others, run away for days at a time and hang out with much older teens.
SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
Then came the obsessions, setting fires, smoking and even marijuana. His parents found home made pipes stashed in Chazz’s bedroom. When his behaviour became too much to handle, Chazz’s parents reached out to several organizations including Children’s Aid and the local mental health provider, Kinark Child and Family Services.
Chazz was admitted to a mental health ward and the emergency room on separate occasions for making suicidal threats and was put on a modified schedule at school. Eventually, his parents Janet and Frank made a difficult decision, at the recommendation of a social worker, to send him to a residential treatment called “Hand in Hand”. He was ten years old.
A psychiatrist who saw Chazz at Hand in Hand wrote in a report obtained by the fifth estate that she thought Chazz suffered from a generalized anxiety disorder. She also had “serious concerns about the quality of care” he was receiving. Most of Hand in Hand’s other residents were much older teens who bullied Chazz. One even “threatened [Chazz] with a knife.” Most of all, the Dr. thought that Chazz needed psychological testing as soon as possible to determine any course of action.
But those tests never happened. After six months, Chazz was returned to his family. Though doctors had thrown around ideas including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), intermittent explosive disorder and tried several medications, Chazz still had no clear diagnosis or treatment plan. He was happy to be home and had a brief honeymoon period before things took a turn for the worse. In the meantime, there were more meetings with all of the agencies involved with the Petrellas: Children’s Aid, the local school board, Kinark Child and Family Services. And then yet another agency was brought onboard - in June 2013, Service Coordination for Children and Youth.
Service Coordination is funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and the Ministry of Community and Social Services. According to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, “A service coordinator’s role involves helping children and youth to access the supports and services required to meet their needs from across all child- and youth-serving sectors, and coordinating the delivery of those services. A service coordinator’s role is generally associated with situations that are complex and therefore require supports and services from several providers.”
A service coordinator named Alex Muir was assigned Chazz’s case. It was quickly agreed that Chazz needed assessment and Chazz was fast-tracked into one of the three secure youth mental health facilities in Ontario: a place called Youthdale. Chazz’s father Frank Petrella tells fifth estate host Gillian Findlay that help was on the way, “We were told they had the facilities to do sleep analysis, neurological testing, medication tweaking...we were sold on it that this is the crisis centre. This is where we’re going to get answers.”
NO MONEY FOR TESTING
Youthdale could have been a turning point in Chazz Petrella’s life. Thirty days of 24-hour observation and a chance to do testing. But he was uncooperative, often refusing to talk to doctors. And there was another problem: money. Some of the tests the Youthdale doctors wanted to do cost extra, between $2,500 and $4,000.
Documents obtained by the fifth estate show that a request for funding was made to the Service Coordinator Alex Muir. But for reasons neither he nor the Ministry will explain, the funds were never approved and the tests were never done. After the legal limit of 30 days of secure treatment, Chazz was released.
The question would become where Chazz would go next. His placement at another group home, Kinark Lansdowne House, also ended in disaster. Police removed Chazz from that home after he allegedly punched a staff member.
His parents were at a loss. And increasingly, so was Chazz. His father, Frank Petrella: “he started to feel like he was being bounced around because he would quite often say to us, ‘Well Dad, what’s the point? It’s not going to make a difference.’” By this point, 11-and-half-year-old Chazz had been in and out of three schools, two residential facilities and a psychiatric crisis centre. And still no one had succeeded in doing the tests that might have lead to a diagnosis and treatment.
But in the winter of 2014, finally a beacon. Chazz was placed at Bayfield, a privately run school specializing in children with behavioural issues. Chazz’s mother, Janet Ashby-Petrella tells the fifth estate that Chazz finally started to thrive, “everything there was designed to support kids like him. So he didn’t feel centred out as far as his behaviour.”
His report card reflected the change - all As and Bs. Teachers called him a “pleasure” in the classroom. But almost as soon as Chazz had settled in - his treatment would turn on funding. Because Chazz has arrived at Bayfield on an emergency basis, his tuition was covered for the first 30 days.
Service Coordination then extended the coverage to allow Chazz to finish the school year but cautioned that if Chazz was to return to Bayfield the following year, it would be up to the Petrellas to pay - at least $21,000 per year. The Petrellas tell the fifth estate that they were not in a position to pay the Bayfield tuition.
In an email obtained by the fifth estate service coordinator Alex Muir writes,
“The funding of Chazz to attend Bayfield’s day program was really an exception based on the unique circumstances of his situation [...] it remains the responsibility of the [local] school board to provide educational programming for Chazz.”
But Chazz was not ready to re-enter the mainstream school system, according to a letter the Bayfield principal sent Chazz’s parents.
CONFUSED, FRUSTRATED AND SCARED
By The summer of 2014, Chazz had run out of hope, and to his mind, out of options. Things got worse as the summer went on. Chazz barely came out of his room and was growing gaunt. At the end of July, Chazz turned 12. He told his parents he just wanted a Blizzard from the Dairy Queen. No party.
One night in August was particularly out of control. Chazz flew into yet another rage and broke his hand punching a wall. His mother took him to the hospital, where he got a cast and was given twice the normal dose of an adult sedative.
Hours later, at around 4:00 a.m. they were back. Chazz had chewed off the cast and punched the wall again. Chazz told the ER doctor that he didn’t know why he was doing what he was doing and that he was confused, frustrated and scared.
The doctor told Chazz’s mom that she would have liked to keep Chazz but she didn’t have the staff or the bed. Chazz wandered off at 6:00a.m. while his mom was filling out forms in the hospital. He’d decided to walk the three kilometres home.
It was around 10 that morning that Chazz’s father Frank discovered Chazz’s bed was empty and went looking for him, “I have an office at the back of the house above my garage. Beside the garage was his favorite tree that would climb often when he was feeling overwhelmed. I was up in the office and I was coming back out I saw him in the tree and I thought he was just climbing it so I yelled at him to get out, and that we were worried sick about him. And then as I came down the steps and got a closer look I realized what he had done.”
CHAZZ IS NOT ALONE
Chazz’s parents argue that his suicide should never have happened given the level of intervention he had over his short life. And The Ontario Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Irwin Elman agrees. Elman is calling on the provincial coroner to launch an inquest. He sees Chazz’s story as one more avoidable tragedy.
Elman launched Canada's first provincial inquest database online in 2013. The site features searchable recommendations from the more than 26 inquests in the last 15 years that involved issues around children and youth. The inquest database includes suicides, homicides and accidental deaths.
Elman hopes that giving the public access to this information will provide a resource for families and increase transparency. Among the recommendations, at least four different coroners’ juries have recommended specific systemic changes that, had they been implemented and enforced, might have helped Chazz and his family. These include: making comprehensive assessments a priority to be done as soon as a child is identified as having problems, assigning each family a government-appointed guide, someone to help navigate the fragmented system and to protect the child’s interests.
The problems Chazz faced with the various agencies are not new. There have been at least eight different government reports in Ontario all emphasizing the need to do better when it comes to children and mental health. Yet two shocking statistics remain: in Canada, suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth aged ten to 19. And Canada also has the third-highest youth suicide rate in the industrialized world.
the fifth estate wanted to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Services, Tracy MacCharles about the issues Chazz’s story raises. She declined several requests for an interview with the fifth estate. Instead she provided a statement. It reads in part that her Ministry is working “tirelessly” to fix what she calls “gaps” in Ontario’s mental health system.
As for the various agencies that dealt with the Petrella family - no one at Service Coordination, Kinark Child and Family Services or Highland Shores Children’s Aid Society would answer questions about Chazz.
Chazz’s parents hope that a coroner’s inquest will give them the answers they are looking for. Janet Ashby-Petrella: “I think there has to be accountability. It doesn’t have to be personal accountability, but there has to be someone to say that these are flaws in the system that have to be held accountable by each one of these agencies.”
Ontario’s Chief Coroner, Dr. Dirk Huyer confirms that his office is investigating Chazz Petrella’s death. The time a coroner’s investigation takes varies but in general takes many months. That investigation would need to be completed before a decision would be made about whether to call an inquest.
Seven months after Chazz’s death, the Petrellas are slowly coming to terms with life without him. There’s a new baby in the family now, a niece who will never know her uncle.
His mother Janet still wonders what might have become of her son had he had the chance to mature: “It's hard because you get to a point where you realize that there's no new pictures of Chazz. There will never be new memories of Chazz, so those kinds of things become, more cherished. So many people have said to us, oh when I was younger I tried to commit suicide and felt exactly the same way and when I hit like my 20s I was able to control it with the right treatment. And I think we just feel like he didn't get that chance.”