By all accounts, the drowning death of a 17-year-old boy who died at Hewitt Park in eastern Baker County on a vacation with his foster family and friends was a tragic accident.
Thierno Bah, a native of the West African country of Guinea, didn’t know how to swim and authorities believe he probably died the night of July 3 when he walked into the water of Brownlee Reservoir.
“A number of pieces of evidence showed he probably waded into the water, which drops off to about 40 feet,” District Attorney Greg Baxter said Tuesday. “It was an obvious case of accidental death. There were no signs of trauma.”
A kayaker found Bah’s body a week later on Friday, July 10, floating west of the boat docks at Hewitt Park about 50 yards from shore. Searchers had spent the week looking for him.
Sunny Petit, Oregon Department of Human Services press secretary, expressed the agency’s sympathy for Bah’s death in a Wednesday email to the Herald.
While Bah’s specific case is protected by law, she offered some insight into how a young man from Guinea came to be in foster care in Oregon, noting that “the general answer is a mix of federal and state policy and procedure.”
“Oregon DHS becomes involved when there is a determined threat of safety to a child,” she stated in the email response. “For example, when an unaccompanied child crosses the border seeking immigration relief (including refugee status) and is apprehended, the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement searches for family to sponsor the child.
“If family is not found, or is unable to care for the child, they are sent to a contracted residential facility where they await legal representation, and Oregon DHS may assist in finding placement in a longer term foster care family setting.”
In his obituary, the family described the hardships their foster son had faced in his young life:
“An orphan from a young age from Guinea in West Africa, he was raised by his uncle until the age of 15. Not allowed to go to school and not much of a future to look forward to, he set off to Brazil to start a new life on his own.
“After arriving in Brazil, Thierno decided to venture to America, again on his own. He survived many dangerous feats as he traveled by bus, by boat and by foot from country to country for 3 months.”
Bah had been placed with Portland-area foster parents, Ahmed Ebeid and Omnia “Nora” Mahmoud.
“In our nine weeks together, we can wholeheartedly attest that this beautiful angel of a young man had an unwavering faith in God that inspired us all,” they wrote.
“Despite all his struggles, Thierno was extremely resilient, calm, focused, kind and humble, and his interactions with everyone around him exuded the utmost respect. We are grateful for the time we shared together as we believe we were blessed to have had Thierno in our lives.”
The family was camped at Hewitt Park, 3 miles east of Richland, with a group of friends when they reported Bah missing about 9 p.m. July 3. He had failed to return from a walk that he had set off on at about 5:30 that evening.
DHS spokeswoman Petit said that when a child dies in foster care, a critical incident review team is assigned to gather information to determine if the death might have been the result of abuse or neglect. Results of the reviews are available on the DHS website at oregon.gov/dhs/CHILDREN/CIRT/Pages/index.aspx
“In the case of Thierno Bah, this was clearly a tragic accident and we are deeply saddened by his untimely loss,” Petit wrote in her email to the Herald. “Our hearts go out to all those whose lives he has touched.”