Nunavut’s Family Services seized baby after pot smoke found in home, inquest hears
Amelia Keyookta, age four months, died one day after apprehension from family
It’s been almost three years since a social worker with the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Family Services took Loanna Keyookta’s infant child from her.
That day, July 28, 2015, the Iqaluit woman was carrying her four-month-old child in her amauti.
She was trying to get away from social workers and police who were apprehending the baby on the grounds that marijuana smoke was found in their home.
The next time Keyookta held her baby—the following day—the child would be dead.
“She was not breathing when I saw her,” Keyookta said on Monday, April 23 in a witness testimony given at the Nunavut Court of Justice, during the first day of a five-day inquest that will examine the facts surrounding the 2015 death of baby Amelia Annie Leah Keyookta.
“I held her for a while. I was able to hold her for a while,” the mother said.
While in the care of Family Services, the infant was pronounced dead at the Qikiqtani General Hospital, at or around 3:30 p.m., on July 29, 2015. Amelia had been born on March 9 that year.
It’s mandatory under the Nunavut Coroners Act for the coroner to hold an inquest into the death of a person who is in the custody of a government institution.
An inquest is not a fault-finding exercise. At the end of the inquest, the jury will reach a verdict on the cause of death and make recommendations on how to avoid similar deaths in the future.
Family Services apprehended baby Amelia that summer after an unscheduled visit by social worker Aleisha Wesley, who was greeted by the smell of marijuana and what she described as more pot smoke than she had ever seen before found inside a home.
“It was extremely foggy. Like a foggy day,” Wesley said. “Both times the house was filled with smoke … We weren’t sure if they were intoxicated or not.”
Wesley no longer works for the GN.
Neither parent could recall any other occasion when Family Services apprehended their child.
“The social worker apprehended my child and told me I’m taking too much of that stuff and because of that I won’t see my child again,” Keyookta said in her testimony.
“I immediately started getting ready to leave because I didn’t want them to take my child … I told them that they weren’t there regarding my daughter.”
Department records show that Amelia had been apprehended two weeks earlier, on July 13, for a few hours, when the couple was told to air marijuana smoke out of the house they were staying in.
Wesley said she first visited that residence after Iqaluit Public Health asked her to check on a one-month-old premature infant who lived permanently in the house.
Wesley said Amelia appeared healthy, aside for a cough, for which Keyookta took the child to see a doctor. The physician said the child was OK.
Before both apprehensions, on June 26, Keyookta took Amelia to a clinic where she was diagnosed with a viral infection that was expected to soon clear up and given a puffer.
For the July 28 apprehension, Wesley said that she called RCMP for safety reasons, because Amelia’s father, Kaiva Onalik, was getting upset.
“Of course he was angry when our daughter was taken away,” Keyookta had said.
In his testimony, Onalik said he thought the baby was being taken for a long time.
“I asked her if we would see her again. The answer was ‘no,’” Onalik said. “All she said was, we won’t see our child again.”
Wesley told the inquest that she would never have said such a thing, but that she could have said, “not today.”
Northwest Territories Coroner Garth Eggenberger, who is presiding over the inquest, asked Wesley what her understanding was of how well the two parents spoke and understood English.
Wesley said she believed Keyookta speaks better English than Onalik.
During the inquest, both parents testified in Inuktitut.
The next morning, the parents met with Wesley to talk about having their child returned to them through a care agreement, with addictions treatment and other conditions to keep the child safe.
“They didn’t want to lose Amelia,” said Wesley, who said apprehending children was the worst part of her job.
But the worst actually came later.
On the night of July 28, baby Amelia stayed in a foster home that was newly registered with the department. The next day, Amelia went to a daycare.
It wasn’t until Wesley picked the child up from daycare that she found the baby was unresponsive, when she tried to put a sweater on her.
“She was sort of limp,” Wesley said, beginning to cry. “As soon as my hand hit her stomach I realized she wasn’t breathing.”
Wesley and the babysitters called for help.
“The paramedics kind of looked at each other and shook their heads, subtly,” Wesley said.
Onalik said the family received no support after the baby died. Keyookta said she spoke with an elder.
Wesley said she went on sick leave shortly after and did not return to her job.
In the coming days, jurors and counsel will hear from the daycare providers who looked after baby Amelia, the overnight foster parents, police, and from medical experts.
“You will hear that her death affected many people profoundly,” said Sheila MacPherson, a lawyer for the Nunavut government.
“You will hear that we are never likely to know the exact cause of Amelia’s death.”