Alberta’s child advocate calls for changes

Alberta's child advocate wants changes after suicide of aboriginal teen. Alfonso Cacciola/E+

EDMONTON – Alberta’s children’s advocate wants social workers to better connect aboriginal kids in government care with their families and culture.

It’s one of three recommendations made in Del Graff’s report examining the suicide of a 15-year-old aboriginal boy.

The teen had tried four other times to kill himself before he was found hanging in a playground near his group home in 2012. He was taken to hospital and died two days later.

“He was a young man who struggled to have a sense of belonging,” Graff wrote in his report released Wednesday.

He noted that the boy was in and out of care before the province took permanent guardianship of him at age 10. Over the next five years, he had eight case workers and was moved 13 times.

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He was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and sometimes lashed out violently against other teens and care home staff. But he also thrived in some of his placements and was named president of his junior high school’s student council, the report said.

Graff didn’t identify the boy, but gave him the pseudonym “Tony.”

“Case workers were challenged to find a home for Tony that could meet his behavioural needs and he ended up living far away from his home community,” wrote Graff. “His relationships with those who mattered the most to him were weakened.”

There was a long-term plan for Tony to move in with a grandfather whom he was close with on his home reserve. But the plan was scuttled when the man became terminally ill. In the days before his suicide, Tony had visited his grandfather in hospital and argued with a girlfriend, said the report.

Graff further recommended the government better assess children at risk of suicide and do so on a regular basis, “not just at the time of crisis.”

The government also needs to encourage more information sharing between caregivers, Graff said. The gains Tony made in one home may have continued if strategies that worked best for him were passed on, he suggested.

Graff said Tony’s death reminded him of the case of Richard Cardinal, a 17-year-old Metis boy found hanging outside his foster home in 1984. A review of his case led to significant child welfare changes in the province.

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“Sadly, although much has changed over the past 30 years, the reforms have not led to a child intervention system where we can be confident that these tragic circumstances no longer happen.”

Human Services Minister Heather Klimchuk said caregivers worked hard to help the troubled teen, and described his death as a tragedy.

She said cultural plans are already developed for all children in care but her office will review the report and its recommendations to see what improvements can be made.

“We know that with Alberta growing like it is, we have to keeping looking, refreshing everything we do when we work with families.”

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