Police were called to a Hamilton group home the day before an Indigenous teen went missing, after he and another resident got into a heated argument that culminated in damage to several items, a coroner's inquest heard Thursday.
Scott Shewfelt, a youth worker at the Lynwood Charlton Centre's Flamborough location, testified Devon Freeman was upset and crying on Oct. 6, 2017, because some of the other youth at the home had made "negative comments" about his late mother.
By the time Shewfelt's shift started that afternoon, Freeman and one youth were locked in a "drawn-out argument," he said. At one point, Freeman took the other youth's crutch and hit it against a wall, and damaged the doorknob to a bedroom as well as a video game controller, he said.
Shewfelt said he placed his body between the two in an effort to defuse the situation. Staff called police over the property damage, he said.
Later, Shewfelt said he went to talk to Freeman and made an effort to validate the teen's feelings, sharing his own grief over the recent loss of his wife.
“I was trying to let him know that I understand where he’s coming from," he testified.
Freeman seemed to feel better by the end of the conversation and there was no indication he wanted to leave the site, he said.
"I felt comfortable when I left him that night that Devon and I had made a breakthrough," he said.
Under cross-examination, the youth worker was asked whether he had sought any additional mental health support for Freeman's apparent "intense grief response" that day. He replied that in hindsight, he "should have went further" to do so.
Freeman, who was 16 at the time, went missing from the home on Oct. 7 and his body was found on the property more than six months later, in April 2018. An autopsy determined he died by hanging.
On Wednesday, jurors heard police weren't told of Freeman's history of suicidal thoughts or that he had attempted to end his life earlier that year.
The inquest also heard that officers who responded to the Oct. 6 incident did not charge Freeman with mischief under $5,000 that day, opting instead for a diversion program.
But according to a report on the incident dated Oct. 22, Shewfelt told police Freeman's behaviour towards staff worsened after the officers left, coroner's counsel said Wednesday. Police then decided Freeman no longer qualified for the diversion program and issued a warrant for his arrest on the mischief charge.
Jurors were also told Freeman had been reported missing from the home dozens of times that year, and often wouldn't return for days.
In his testimony Thursday, Shewfelt said Freeman leaving the property was a "common problem."
"Normally it was because he was being held accountable for a comment or behaviour," the youth worker said.
Usually, as soon as staff realized he had left, they would search the building and then the property, he said.
Someone would also usually try to follow Freeman to monitor his safety and encourage him to come back, but the teen would take steps to elude staff, including venturing onto private property, he said.
The inquest is not sitting Friday in honour of the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. It is set to resume Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2022.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press