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The coroner’s inquest into the death of Kaiya Sandra Faith Stone-Kirk, a seven-month-old from the Watson Lake area, enters its final day on June 16.
Since the inquest began on June 12 in Whitehorse, presiding coroner Mara Pollock, jurors and legal representatives have heard emotional and, at times, contradictory testimony about the final days of Stone-Kirk, who was declared deceased on Aug. 1, 2021, at Watson Lake Community Hospital.
On the opening day of the inquest, Stone-Kirk’s grandmother, Margaret Sue Stone, testified that she was the caregiver of the infant and her 17-month-old brother under an extended family care agreement. It was stated that both of the children’s parents faced challenges related to substance use.
Stone and her grandchildren, who are members of the Liard First Nation (LFN), had come down with COVID-19 in the week before the toddler’s death.
Stone’s symptoms led her to seek medical attention on July 30. Family and Children’s Services and Stone jointly decided to place the young children in the temporary care of Cheryl Wolftail.
Wolftail, whose family was also infected with COVID-19 and isolated at the time, was initially hesitant to take Stone’s grandchildren. She ultimately agreed to take the infant and her brother for a few hours, although this arrangement was later extended to one night and later two nights.
When the coroner’s council asked why she agreed to watch Stone-Kirk and her toddler brother, Wolftail told the inquiry “I wanted to help, no one else would.”
Jurors were told that, on the evening of July 31, Stone-Kirk was left to fall asleep on an adult-sized bed at Wolftail’s home instead of in the bassinet provided by Family and Children’s Services. At some point, before Wolftail awoke the following day, Stone-Kirk became wedged in a small gap between the bed and the wall.
“I saw the baby’s face smothered in the mattress […] I kind of freaked out, and I lifted her up […], and I said, ‘What did I do?’” Wolftail sobbed. “She wasn’t breathing at all.”
Upon discovering the unresponsive infant, Wolftail called for paramedics, who attended the scene and performed CPR before transporting Stone-Kirk to the hospital. Stone-Kirk was pronounced dead at the medical facility after resuscitation efforts failed.
According to forensic pathologist Elizabeth McKinnon, who conducted the autopsy on Stone-Kirk, she believes the baby’s cause of death was positional asphyxia.
McKinnon told the inquest that Stone-Kirk was deceased for “probably about half an hour” when first responders arrived at Wolftail’s home.
“The pain of losing a grandchild is something you cannot even imagine, it is so excruciating, and it feels like my insides have been torn out. My heart feels like it is broken into so many pieces,” Stone told the inquest.
“I cry endlessly when I think of Kaiya […] to see Kaiya lying in her coffin is an image I can’t get out of my mind.”
Details of safe sleep practices have been discussed extensively during the inquest, and current and former staffers at Family and Children’s Services were pressed to explain the decision-making process behind the placement of Stone-Kirk and her brother in Wolftail’s care.
Mimi Deacon was the regional social worker assigned to Stone-Kirk’s file at the time. The coroner’s council questioned Deacon, asking about her knowledge of the challenges faced by Wolftail when caring for her own children as babies, including serious allegations of neglect.
Family and Children’s Services staff and other witnesses mentioned numerous times that Watson Lake was dealing with a significant outbreak of COVID-19 at the time Deacon was helping find a temporary caregiver for Stone-Kirk and her brother.
Stone suggested that her grandkids should have been taken to a medical facility for care due to their status as COVID-19 positive.
“They were diagnosed with COVID. They were sick. They should have been brought to the hospital. They were denied medical attention by being put in a home that was in lockdown and not brought into the hospital,” Stone said, adding that her grandchildren were hot to the touch, sweaty and coughing when they left for Wolftail’s home.
The inquest is scheduled to conclude on June 16, with jurors tasked with determining the details surrounding the death, including the deceased’s identity, how she died and the death’s classification, among other facts.
Jurors can also make recommendations to help prevent similar deaths in the future, an outcome Stone supported during the inquest.
“I am not the same. I will never be the same,” Stone said through tears before adding, “I don’t want this to happen to another family.”
Contact Matthew Bossons at firstname.lastname@example.org