Alberta child advocate wants more supports after suicides of Indigenous teens

Alberta Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff. Codie McLachlan, The Canadian Press.

One Indigenous teenager killed himself in a group home after being denied a call to his mother. Another committed suicide after living on the streets, his calls for help denied.

Their deaths in 2015 have Alberta’s child and youth advocate calling for a greater emphasis on family connections and more willingness to provide supports for at-risk teens.

“When a young person dies by suicide, there are some factors that come into play that are fairly predictable,” Del Graff said.

Graff issued a report last year that said there was a “terrible trend of aboriginal youth suicide” in Alberta. His reports Monday on two of those suicides point to similar underlying problems, he said.

READ MORE: Suicide of First Nations youth shows kids in care must be heard, says Alberta advocate

The 17-year-old who took his own life in a group home was from another province but came to Alberta to live with his mother, who was later found to be abusing prescription drugs.

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The boy was arrested for stealing cars and served time in custody. He had an easier time phoning his mother there than he did later at the group home, where rules about contact were more strict, Graff wrote.

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“Secure attachment between a youth and a caring adult is essential to healthy development, builds resiliency and provides a sense of belonging,” he said.

“(The teen) would have benefited from an intentional plan that maintained his connections to family.”

READ MORE: Alberta faces renewed questions on safety of kids in government care

The second case involved a 15-year-old boy who had left his parents’ home, where he had been exposed to violence and drug and alcohol abuse. He bounced between the homes of different relatives, but often had nowhere to stay.

In the months before his death, he repeatedly asked for help from Child Intervention Services but was denied. He was found dead at his sister’s house.

“Ongoing support was not offered because it was believed that he had places he could stay,” Graff’s report said. “The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate has seen a marked increase in the number of adolescents … who have asked Child Intervention Services for help and have been denied.

“Some community organizations have indicated that young people whom they work with have been denied services so often, they have simply stopped asking.”

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Among other recommendations, Graff suggested the government should develop policies to better assess the vulnerabilities of teens who seek help. There should also be an appeal mechanism specific to adolescents who are denied services and supports, he said.

In his report last year, Graff said Indigenous young people are five to six times more likely to be affected by suicide than the general population. He pointed to the legacy of residential schools and the ’60s Scoop, which saw Indigenous children removed from their homes and placed with non-Indigenous families.

READ MORE: ’60s Scoop settlement ‘first step’ in reconciliation with Indigenous victims, minister says

Children’s Services Minister Danielle Larivee said the government will act on Graff’s findings.

“We will take the time to look at these recommendations, and explore what actions we can take to address the challenges the advocate identified,” she said in a statement Monday.

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