British Columbia

'I trusted them with my son': Mother of Indigenous teen who died in B.C. group home speaks out for first time

The mother of 17-year-old Traevon Chalifoux-Desjarlais, who died in his Abbotsford group home in September, says she wants justice for her son. "They're supposed to be there to help support him ... but they failed him," she said.

Ministry of Children and Families says it cannot comment because of the election

Samantha Chalifoux stands in front of the group home where her son Traevon Chalifoux-Desjarlais died.  (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Samantha Chalifoux carries a bouquet of fresh flowers and lays them on a memorial in front of the group home where her son Traevon Chalifoux-Desjarlais died. 

"I'm not dealing with it well at all," she says.

Her 17-year-old Cree son died in a government-run Abbotsford, B.C., group home on Sept. 14, but his body was not found until four days later.

She said she visits the memorial often, to feel closer to him.

Chalifoux says her son was a caring and outgoing high school student who really wanted to get a job. 

"He used to always tell me, 'I'm going to find a really good job that pays a lot of money and I'm going to give you a lot of money,' and I used to tell him that you don't have to give me any money because you're my son," Chalifoux said through tears.

Flowers and candles at the site of a memorial for Chalifoux-Desjarlais, who died at the Abbotsford group home. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

She says she'd text him every day and when she didn't hear from him for a couple of days she started to panic, calling his dad, friends and cousins.

The home, which is run by a B.C. government Aboriginal agency called Xyolhemeylh, or the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society, filed a missing person's report on Sept. 14.

Chalifoux said she called the Abbotsford police several times, asking if they could "ping" her son's phone — or send a signal and use the responding data to determine the phone's location. 

The Abbotsford police corroborated this, saying "a phone number that was provided to the Abbotsford police was pinged; however, the ping was unsuccessful as it was a 'third party calling service.'" 

Four days after the missing person's report was filed, police searched the bedroom of the group home and Chalifoux-Desjarlais's body was found in his closet.

'I trusted them'

Because of the sensitive nature of the investigation, police say they are unable to provide specific details surrounding the teen's cause of death. 

The Abbotsford Police Department's Major Crime Unit concluded no criminality was suspected.

Chalifoux said there were red flags while her son was in the group home. She says he often texted saying he was hungry and was not being allowed food from the group home staff, and he also complained he was not allowed fresh bedding.

"They're supposed to be there to help support him, to help him feel comfortable, to help [him] feel welcomed but they failed him," she said standing beside the group home.

"I trusted them with my son, and now I don't even have my son with me," she said.

'I definitely don't ever want to see another child go through this, I'm not letting this go," says Chalifoux, looking at a photo of her son. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

This is not the first time an Indigenous teen has died while in the care of Xyolhemeylh, the Aboriginal agency delegated by the Ministry of Children and Family Development. 

Doug Kelly, who was one of Xyolhemeylh's founders and is the president of Sto:lo Tribal Council, confirmed that Alex Gervais — a teen who committed suicide in 2015 — was also in the care of Xyolhemeylh when he died. 

Two-year-old Chassidy Whitford also died while involved with the same agency. She was found dead in 2002 on the Leq'á:mel First Nation, near Mission.

A ministry review found that Xyolhemeylh "did not meet all the requirements of child protection standards in its response to a July 8, 2002 child protection report regarding the child," according to an MCFD release at the time.

In 2017, workers at Xyolhemeylh pushed their employer to reduce their caseloads and provide resources to allow them to provide services in a culturally appropriate way, according to their union, the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union.

A statement released at the time stated that child welfare in the province was chronically underfunded and said "of the approximately 4,000 Aboriginal children in care in B.C., Xyolhemeylh provides services to over 400."

The Ministry of Children and Family Development said it was not able to comment on the treatment of Chalifoux-Desjarlais during his stay at the home, about his death or anything else related to the home because of the provincial election. 

B.C.'s representative for children and youth Jennifer Charlesworth said while she is also not able to investigate because of the election, she is reviewing the case and preparing for an investigation. 

Chalifoux-Desjarlais was in the home as part of a voluntary custody agreement with the ministry. His mom told the CBC that the arrangement was to be temporary and that she was helping him look for his own place.

"If I would have known this was going to happen, I would have kept him with me," Chalifoux said.

"They're supposed to be there to help him, to help support him, to help bring him up. And they all failed. And they didn't only fail him, they failed me," she said. 

Sarah Rauch, Chalifoux's lawyer, stands in front of the group home where Chalifoux-Desjarlais died. (Angela Sterritt/CBC)

Her lawyer Sarah Rauch, who has successfully represented other Indigenous parents with concerns about MCFD, called this a difficult story but one that is all too familiar. 

"Unfortunately, it's not that surprising to me. I think the legacy of children in care and Indigenous children in care is well known and spoken about, but there's still not enough done," she said. 

Rauch said she will follow the direction of her client, pushing for a public inquiry and possibly taking other legal actions.

"I would like justice for my son," Chalifoux said.

"I will never get my son back and I will do everything I can to be his voice and to stand up."

"I definitely don't ever want to see another child go through this, I'm not letting this go, " she said.

The BC Coroners Service investigation continues.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?