Ontario coroner gathering data for massive analysis of child and youth deaths


TORONTO — An Ontario youth court judge has granted the coroner’s office access to justice records that will be reviewed as part of a pilot project looking into thousands of deaths of children and young adults in the province.

Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer told Justice Sheilagh O’Connell on Tuesday that more than 7,000 people aged 10 to 24 years old have died in Ontario between 2007 and 2018. He said the project was an effort to better understand the factors at play.

“It’s very important research, so I commend you for this,” O’Connell said as she granted the coroner’s office access to the records.

Huyer said outside court that one area of focus for researchers will be the more than 3,000 children and young people who died due to suicide or gun violence.

“One thing we’re trying to develop is a risk-prediction model — what are the risks — and provide those to the people who are alive,” he said.

Youth criminal records are tightly restricted in Ontario under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, but there is a provision to allow access for research, provided the researchers take care to remove identification records.

“I am satisfied it is very much in the public interest,” O’Connell said.

Peggy McPhail, who is heading the research, said her team has been quietly working on the project for the past 1.5 years and is winding down the data-gathering phase.

The data has been collected from the Ontario ministries of education, children and youth, training and colleges, corrections and health, McPhail said. The team is collecting up to 3,000 data points for each of the 7,335 child and young adult deaths they are reviewing, she said.

“We’re using that data together, integrating it, putting it together to look for trends and analyze those trends to determine what were the causes of the deaths, and their life circumstances that contributed to their death,” McPhail said.

Huyer said they will try to get a “normal” trajectory for a child and compare that with, for example, those who dealt with the youth justice system.

“Was there part of a pattern of challenges?” Huyer said. “We don’t know the answers yet.”

Both Huyer and McPhail have been interested in taking a closer look at children and young adult deaths for a while, they said. Huyer used to work with “the living” on the child abuse team at the Hospital for Sick Children before becoming a coroner.

“The review we were doing in children’s deaths wasn’t as comprehensive as it could be,” he said.

They hope to wrap up the collection of data by March. A set of recommendations will be issued after all the data is analyzed, they said.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press