The latest report from Alberta’s child and youth advocate recounts the heartbreaking stories of another nine children who died last year while their families were involved with the child welfare system.
The report by Del Graff, released Wednesday, makes five recommendations, ranging from more help for babies born to mothers with substance abuse problems to more financial support for front-line workers so they can better access experts.
The nine children, identified only by pseudonyms, all died between April 1 and Sept. 30, 2018. They ranged in age from three months to 18 years. Two died by suicide. Two in car accidents. One from fentanyl poisoning and one from a suspected drug overdose.
“I always have a sense of sadness, of concern for families and their loss and the impact on the people who serve these children — all of these things go through my mind when I start to hear of the circumstances of these kids,” Graff told CBC News.
Of the nine children, eight were Indigenous, he said.
“That’s substantial and reflective of the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in government care,” Graff said. “It’s not a surprise but it’s certainly something noteworthy, and is an important issue that needs to be addressed.”
In his report, Graff noted that he has made a number of recommendations over the past six years related to issues that were apparent for these nine young people, such as risk assessment, the importance of connections and mental health services.
“I have referenced them again, I cannot state strongly enough that they must be acted upon,” he wrote.
Nova was 12 when she died
One young girl, referred to as Nova in the 121-page report, was involved with the child intervention system off and on for half of her life.
Nova, who was 12 when she died, was described by Graff as an “energetic, outspoken and artistic” little girl who liked the outdoors and sports, and loved animals.
Her parents lived on an Alberta First Nation reserve but separated when their daughter was an infant.
The child intervention system first became involved when Nova was seven months old, after someone reported the infant and her sibling were exposed to domestic violence and their father’s drinking.
Nova’s father was later arrested for drunk driving while one of his kids was in the car.
Their family had no involvement with the system for the next seven years.
When she was seven, Nova was diagnosed with anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She was prescribed medication.
Not long after her eighth birthday, she was abused by a family member. The man was charged by police and he was not allowed further contact with the little girl.
Numerous hospital visits
The government again got involved when Nova was in Grade 4, because she was self-harming. One incident at school was so serious, she had to be taken to hospital by ambulance.
Nova reported being bullied at school.
She was referred to an “intensive therapy program” that was two hours away from her home. She had to wait to get into the program.
When she was 10, an older boy at school asked Nova to send him “inappropriate” photos of herself on social media. Her mother, called Monique in the report, told police, and a “no contact” order was put in place.
Caseworkers referred Nova to a psychiatrist and the school psychologist. But they couldn’t help, because they were already giving therapy to the boy involved.
Nova often ran away from school.
A month before she turned 11, she was taken to a hospital emergency room for a psychological assessment. She was described as “traumatized and impulsive” and was threatening to harm herself or other people. Medical staff recommended her medications be reviewed and suggested she change schools “for a fresh start.”
Nova finished Grade 5 in a new school.
Bullied at school
Months later, her mother entered into an “enhancement agreement” with child intervention services to help deal with the costs and the wait time for the intensive therapy program. A new social worker was assigned to the case.
Nova transferred back to her previous school for Grade 6, but she kept running away whenever she was angry or upset.
Her mother finally told caseworkers she was overwhelmed and wanted to send her daughter to live temporarily with relatives on another First Nation reserve.
“Shortly afterward, Monique received a letter informing her that child intervention involvement was ending three months earlier because Nova was not living in their jurisdiction,” Graff said in his report.
Nova was no longer prioritized for the intensive therapy program because her file had been closed.
She continued to be bullied at her new school. She continued to cut herself.
“Nova said that the bullying was getting worse and some incidents had become physical,” Graff said.
She was taken to the emergency room.
‘Never got help’
“While they were waiting to be seen, Nova asked why they kept going to the hospital because she ‘never got help.'”
The school and Monique came up with a safety plan and a code word her daughter could use when she was being bullied and had to leave class to go to the principal’s office.
Over a 14-month period, the girl went to emergency rooms eight times. Her mother reported that she had more than 80 meetings with service providers.
In the month before she turned 12, Nova talked more often about killing herself. She lost weight, isolated herself and showed no interest in her hobbies.
Not long after her birthday, she ran away from her relatives’ home.
Hours later, she killed herself.
At the end of his report, Graff was blunt in his assessment.
“Repeatedly making similar recommendations does not change the circumstances for young people,” he wrote.
“Only a change in the systems that serve them and a change in what young people and their families experience will result in improving their outcomes.”