A former child and family services worker and volunteer on thePauingassi First Nation says rampant alcoholism on the reservemay have been a factor in the drowning of a six-year-old boy last week.

RCMPallege three boys betweenseven and nine years of age were responsible for the drowning death of six-year-old Adam Keeper, who disappeared early Tuesday evening on the reserve, 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

Police allege the boy was bullied into taking off his clothes and forced into a lake. He was unable to swim and drowned. His body was found a few hours later.

Edna Nabess, a former worker on the reserve, says alcoholism is an enormous problem.Families often spend most of their income on booze, leaving children hungry and desperate, she says.

"It's a cry for help, because… children learn what they live. What are they learning? To drink, you know, and be hungry."

Pauingassihas struggled to deal with substance-abuse issues in recent years.

Overthe past year, the isolatedcommunity spent thousands on treatment, recreational and cultural programs in an attempt tocontrol an epidemic of gas sniffing once thought to affect half of the reserve's children.

Too young for criminal charges

Chief Harold Crow says the reserve's 350 residents are trying to cope with the boy's death. The family has been holding private services for three days.

"They're accepting the situation, but there are certain things there that'll follow up for the other kids that were with the little boy. There'll be some sort of a support system made for those families," he says.

"We have to try to help them to understand that process and close that, so they can get on with their lives with understanding."

The three boys are too young to be charged criminally in the case.

Instead, reserve council and staff, along with the Southeast Tribal Child and Family Services, will work with the children to try to get them to understand what happened and respond constructively.

The RCMP is assisting in determining the nature of the intervention.

This is the second death involving minors in Pauingassi in the last few months.

In May, two girls, 13 and 15 years old,were charged in connection with the beating death of a 22-year-old woman.