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The real story of ‘the girl in the tent’

Teenager who struggled with drug addiction dies in Surrey after aging out of government care
Savannah Scott-Huntinghawk poses for a photo in front of the Prestige Harbourfront Resort in Salmon Arm, on Tuesday, June 13 - Image credit: Jim Elliot/Salmon Arm Observer



“Little,” as she was known on the streets of Newton, stood just over five feet tall and weighed only 110 pounds, her dark brown eyes always framed by thick glasses to correct her poor vision.

At times brash and outspoken, she was also fiercely protective of her three younger siblings, never wanting them to experience her own life of drug addiction and homelessness.

Santanna Scott-Huntinghawk was 19 when she died on Nov. 30, 2016 in a tent hidden in some trees just off a busy Surrey street. Her case sparked intense debate about how a young person could die alone under such dire circumstances in the middle of B.C.’s second-largest city.

And yet she was mostly an anonymous victim, the public only aware that she had aged out of foster care when she turned 19 earlier that year, losing access to the financial help and social workers that had been provided to her through the child-welfare system.

Her name was never released, but her older sister has agreed to speak about Santanna so she will be remembered as more than just the girl who died in the tent.

“Santanna was one of a kind — she was very spunky, goofy. And she told it how it was,” Savannah Scott said in an emotional interview. “She wasn’t as hard as a lot of people might think she was. She wanted the best for people she really loved and cared about, especially for her younger siblings.”

Although the coroner’s report is not yet complete, the family has been told Santanna overdosed on fentanyl — her death coming in late 2016 when the province’s overdose fatality statistics hit a peak.

“Santanna was going through a really long battle of drug addiction, a battle no one should ever face. She started off just recreational using, and it progressed over a short time period,” said Savannah, 24. “She eventually overdosed on fentanyl and it killed her and she passed away in a tent last November, basically on the side of the road. No one should ever have to go through that, or pass away like that.”

Santanna had grown up in a stable foster care home with three of her siblings, although she remained close to her biological mother. The oft-criticized child welfare system worked relatively well for the young indigenous girl until she hit the age of 15, when her drug use and suspected attention deficit hyperactivity disorder started to cause problems academically and at home.

When she could get the appropriate support, she thrived. At an alternative middle-school in Chilliwack, she responded well to the counsellors, completing two grades in just one year, and is remembered as a “very sweet girl.”

But as Santanna bounced from foster homes to group homes, she spiralled downward, unable to connect with the specific services she desperately needed to lift her again. For the last year of her life, she was homeless on the streets of Surrey.

“She told my mom how everyone else in the (child protection) system made her feel crazy. Her being on the streets made her feel normal, where she didn’t feel different from anyone else,” Savannah said.

“No one really prepared her for the outer world. She was hard to handle, but I feel like people gave up too soon.”

The two main culprits in Santanna’s death, it could be argued, were fentanyl and an ill-equipped child welfare system.

Her death came at a time when advocates were lobbying the province to invest more heavily in child protection services, following a series of high-profile deaths of young people just before or after they aged out of care. Those cases will be the subject of a death review panel to be launched by the coroner’s service in the fall, which will examine the systemic problems faced by foster kids around their 19th birthdays.

There was also pressure on the Liberals to extend foster care beyond the age of 19, but the party argued during the spring election campaign that it instead had expanded or created several patchwork programs to assist these youth, such as supportive housing, counselling and employment programs. (However, in the party’s recent throne speech, as it attempted unsuccessfully to cling to power, it promised to deliver much more, including basic income support and free tuition for these young people until they turned 25.)

The NDP, with support from the Greens, is now poised to form a government, and the parties have promised to work together to “enhance and improve child protection services.” In their platforms, the NDP and Greens promised significant investments in foster care, mental health and drug programs, and housing.

The story of Santanna’s short life and ugly death is yet more evidence that the new government should act with urgency to help troubled youth, said Bernard Richard, the representative for children and youth.

“Of course, mental illness issues and addiction problems affect everyone, but there is no question kids in care and indigenous children are much more vulnerable and much more likely to fall into those traps. And we are seeing that,” Richard said.

“It’s an epidemic, a crisis, that requires significant resources. … Santanna’s story and other similar stories are at the very least an opportunity to learn more about what we need to be doing.”

Savannah and Santanna were born in Brandon, Manitoba, to a hardscrabble life.

Their young mother, Geraldine, a member of the Swan Lake First Nation, fled her hometown in 1997 with baby Santanna and four-year-old Savannah, running away from an abusive and alcoholic partner.

The three of them drove to Kamloops, where they stayed for a short time, and then settled in Chilliwack, seeking a new start in life. Geraldine would marry and have two more children, trying to raise her kids despite a growing battle with alcoholism.

When Savannah was 11 and Santanna was seven, they were put into foster care, along with their little brother and sister. Through these tough times, the four of them kept in regular contact with their birth mother, who today is a recovered alcoholic and is raising the youngest child of the family, a seven-year-old son, with her husband in Surrey.

The couple in Chilliwack who took in the four eldest children continue to foster the younger sister and brother. (The foster mother agreed to speak for this story, but was precluded from doing so by the privacy provisions in her contract with the government.)

“Growing up was a little different than regular growing up in your (biological parents’) home. I can definitely say it took a toll on Santanna more than it did the rest of us,” Savannah said during a lengthy interview in her new home in Salmon Arm.

There are happy memories from their early years with their dedicated foster parents, especially the frequent camping trips to Cultus Lake.

Santanna was not a quiet, compliant child. She was often the funniest, loudest person in the room, but also didn’t hesitate — even at a young age — to let people know if she didn’t like them. It was a quality that made her friends, and lost her friends. It wasn’t always easy being her sister, said Savannah, but their spats typically ended with a hug.

“When we got along, we got along great. We loved each other and were there for each other, especially when our mom and stepdad were going through hard times,” Savannah said.

The four siblings were tight-knit, with Savannah, the eldest, watching out for them all. But in her early teens Savannah hit a rebellious stage and moved out, which she believes was a particularly difficult time for her sister.

“She always wanted our family to be together. One thing that really broke her is not having us all together,” recalls Savannah, who still shoulders much guilt over this.

Santanna liked school and did relatively well when she applied herself, but after her older sister left she started down a rocky path toward drug use.

Savannah, at the time, was doing well in a different foster home, where she received help stopping her own experimentation with drugs, and she convinced her little sister to move there. Santanna underwent more tests for mental illness, was put on new medication, and started to attend the alternative school CHANCE, Chilliwack has a New Classroom Experience.

She walked through the doors of the small school short-tempered and argumentative, but blossomed under the guidance of counsellors and teachers who built positive relationships with her.

“While she was at our school, our staff sensed that she had found something inside of her that wanted to be peaceful and didn’t want to be a fighter anymore,” said Cathy Preibisch, a Chilliwack school district counsellor who spoke on behalf of several colleagues who worked directly with Santanna.

“She worked on solving problems in a more peaceful way. … She started to value herself.”

Santanna, who had fallen behind in her schooling, completed Grades 8 and 9 in just one year, an impressive feat, Preibisch said. “By focusing on her academics and making the connections she made with staff, she began to feel good about herself.”

After completing Grade 9, Santanna moved on to high school, and the CHANCE staff would not see her again. They did not forget her, though, and were saddened to hear of her death. “I don’t want Santanna to just be a tragic story, there were strengths in her life,” said Preibisch.

Around the time Santanna was starting high school, Savannah was required to move out of that second foster home when she turned 19 and aged out of foster care; she had to leave her little sister behind, again.

“Santanna said she felt abandoned after I left, and she went downhill,” her sister recalled, tearing up at the memory. “We did go visit and see her, but it happened so fast.”

Santanna quit school and got into minor trouble with police. Although only in her mid-teens, she moved constantly, often couch surfing or rotating through group homes between Chilliwack and Surrey. She shared sordid stories with her sister about her time in some of these homes.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to live that way. I tried to see her as much as possible, but she was stealing from us — she was so far down at this point,” said Savannah, who was then living in Surrey near her birth mother.

“She wanted to be better. She wanted to get the help … but the workers didn’t really prepare her for aging out. She was hard to work with.”

When Santanna turned 19 in April 2016, the money and support she was still receiving from child welfare workers ended. She remained homeless, despite any adult services then offered to her.

“When you’re so far gone and so dark down a path, it is hard to get out. I think she felt alone a lot of the time,” Savannah said.

Richard, the children’s representative, said there are dedicated front line workers and excellent programs in B.C. that will help many youth, but often more is needed for troubled teens such as Santanna, Alex Gervais and Paige Gauchier, who all recently died just before or after their time in the child welfare system expired.

“What’s clear is these (existing) programs are not that helpful for the most vulnerable, for the kids who age out of care. And the most vulnerable are the ones that are going to end up on the street, addicted,” Richard said. “They need the kind of wraparound services that are not available right now, and we need to do a better job of providing the kinds of supports they need (because) they are usually entering the system already victims of trauma.”

Richard released a report in February on Gervais, 18, who jumped out the window of an Abbotsford hotel where he was sent to live in violation of government policies. The report recommended many changes that could have helped the indigenous teen, who was also using drugs and battling mental illness.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Richard’s predecessor, issued a report in May 2015 into Gauchier, who overdosed in the Downtown Eastside shortly after aging out of a very difficult childhood in care. “Paige was left for years in a situation that no reasonable person would find acceptable for their own child, yet no one questioned it,” Turpel-Lafond said at the time.

Unless distressed youth get comprehensive support both while in care and after aging out, Richard said in an interview, their needs can quickly escalate and become much more difficult to address.

Indeed, Santanna spent the last year of her life homeless. Her biological mother couldn’t let the drug-addicted girl move in with her because she had to protect her young son — a sentiment Santanna understood, Savannah said, because she wanted her three younger siblings to stay safe and clean.

“She was always concerned about them. She always said, ‘I hope they do good in life, I hope they don’t do the things I did,’” Savannah said. “She always wanted the best for them. When they talked about anything drug-related, she would say, ‘No, no.’ She’d say, ‘You guys don’t ever.’”

The family was last together for Christmas 2015 at their grandmother’s place in Surrey. Although it wasn’t a holiday visit out of a Norman Rockwell painting — Santanna came home to shower and do her laundry, and had a fight with her stepfather — Savannah still felt her little sister was relatively stable at that point.

Savannah’s only way of communicating with her sister was through Facebook, as Santanna would sporadically post updates from public library computers. Increasingly, the posts were more rambling and disturbing.

The last time the sisters saw each other was in August, just before Savannah moved to Salmon Arm. Savannah had searched the streets of Newton near their mother’s house to try to find her sister, and located her sitting on the train tracks near Hyland Road.

“When I found her, she had no shoes. She didn’t have proper clothes. She was in the middle of doing drugs,” an emotional Savannah recalled. “It broke my heart seeing her like that.”

Savannah picked up some clothes from her mother’s house and took them to her sister. “I gave her lots of hugs. I told her I loved her. It got to the point that I was preparing myself. … I told her I wasn’t sure when I would see her again.”

About one week before Santanna died, she contacted her birth mother to ask for some blankets. She was cold, she said, because she was living in a tent. Geraldine left the blankets outside the front door of her house, but Santanna never came to pick them up.

At 11:30 p.m. on Nov. 30, Savannah’s cellphone rang. Her grief-stricken mother was calling. Victims’ services had just found Santanna’s body in a tent in some bushes near the intersection of King George Highway and 132nd Street. Her final possessions were strewn about, including an empty Naloxone kit, bicycle, purse, suitcase, black heeled boots, makeup, a notebook with graffiti-like drawings, a pink inflatable air mattress and a four-litre jug of milk.

“It was a drug overdose. Even though I had prepared myself for it, it was a shock. I couldn’t breathe, it took me a few moments to catch my breath,” Savannah said, adding that her mother is devastated by the death.

Santanna is one of more than 1,600 people who have died of drug overdoses in B.C. since the beginning of 2016, a shocking increase over previous years that is caused by fentanyl, the coroner says.

The incoming NDP minority government, propped up by the Greens, has said creating a new ministry to focus on mental health and addictions is one of its top priorities. It has also vowed to create a poverty reduction strategy that addresses homelessness, as well as to hire more social workers to improve child protection services.

The coroner’s new death review panel will eventually make additional recommendations for change. And the ministry for children and families automatically reviews the death of any youth who dies within 12 months of aging out of care, to potentially improve policies and practices.

“Now we are at a point that there is a chance for us to make some real important gains in this area,” said Richard, whose independent office is non-partisan.

Half of Santanna’s ashes were scattered at Cultus Lake during an emotional memorial service attended by her foster family and biological family in March. Geraldine plans to take the rest of her ashes to her hometown in Manitoba later this summer.

Savannah carries her sister’s memory with her everywhere she goes: a bouquet of colourful flowers and the name Santanna are inked on her left forearm.

“I got the sweet pea flowers, which is Santanna’s birth flower. And I got the colour pink and purple, representing herself and myself because they were our colours,” she says. “There’s no words that could ever really explain my true feelings or my (grieving) towards her.”

Savannah Scott-Huntinghawk looks down at the tattoo on her forearm which contains her sister’s name and birth flower, the sweet pea. - Image credit: Jim Elliot/Salmon Arm Observer