Tanya Talaga: Let Amy Owen's legacy be the safeguarding of other kids in care
If a legacy is to be left from Amy Owen’s brief life, let it be this: that hard work is done in her name to make sure what happened to Amy never happens to another child in state care again.
Amy, a 13-year-old, two-spirited Anishinaabe girl, who repeatedly begged for help, took her own life on April 17, 2017, while living in a group home in Cumberland, Ont. Her family found out she died after someone posted it on Facebook.
According to the statement of claim in a $5.5 million lawsuit filed by her father, Jeffrey Owen on Tuesday, Amy’s family didn’t even know which group home she was living in when she died. Amy, whose first language was Ojibwe, wasn’t allowed to call them while at her group home, the claim states. It is against Tikinagan Child and Family Services and Mary Homes. Tikinagan was in charge of her care while she lived at Mary’s Wilhaven Residence.
Amy was one of seven First Nations girls whose lives intersected — either back home in their communities or a thousand kilometres away in group homes or care facilities where they were sent to receive medical and mental health care.
The girls all died by suicide within one year of each other.
Their stories tragically spell out inequities Indigenous people face daily. They became part of my Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, subsequent CBC Radio Massey Lectures and the book .
The message to Canadians was and is — after 150 years of broken treaties and promises, we have Indigenous communities without the same basic rights that everyone else in this country enjoys: access to universal health care, running water and working sewage, schools, safe housing and safe communities. Amy and the other girls had to leave their homes and families and travel alone, hundreds of kilometres away, to access medical help.
There are many more Amys in the child welfare system right now who we do not know about.
We often only find out about them once it is too late — once the coroner’s office steps in, as it did to write a report on 12 children who died while in provincial care from 2014 to 2017. Eight of those kids were Indigenous. One of them was Amy.
The claim states Amy’s “tragic death was a direct and foreseeable consequence of the neglect and breach of fiduciary duty of the defendants.”
Before Amy died, she was in the care of Tikinagan for seven months, apprehended after allegedly being sexually assaulted by an adult male in her First Nations community. She was moved by Tikinagan to various group or foster home placements.
Amy was entitled to her own lawyer, but Tikinagan did not request one, the claim states.
When she died, she had been a resident of Wilhaven, licenced by the ministry of children and youth services, for three months. The claim states that after Amy’s death a ministry inspection was carried out and Mary Homes surrendered its licence for the Wilhaven residence.
Amy was allowed to regularly leave Wilhaven without supervision, the claim states.
During one absence on or around March 30, 2017, she consumed alcohol and drugs and spent the night with two adults, an 18-year-old female former resident of Wilhaven and her 27-year-old boyfriend, the claim states. Amy alleged that she woke up naked in their apartment in Ottawa the following day and she believed she may have been drugged and sexually assaulted. The defendants became aware of this shortly after Amy’s return to the group home but did not notify Amy’s family or contact the police to investigate, the claim states.
During the last six months of Amy’s life, she was admitted to hospital for mental health issues “including suicidal ideation,” and the hospital consistently recommended close one-to-one supervision, the claim says.
A representative of Tikinagan told the Star their statement of defence will be filed in the coming weeks.
Mary Homes did not respond to the Star’s request for comment.
This past Wednesday, in Poplar Hill First Nation, Amy’s family held a feast to honour her memory and to mark the two years since her death. The family gathered for turkey and cake.
Flowers were placed in a vase below a black and white photograph of Amy, below a table where she should have been sitting.
Tanya Talaga is a Toronto-based columnist covering Indigenous issues. Follow her on Twitter: @tanyatalaga