Many reports coming from Saskatchewan’s children’s advocate deal with tragic deaths, which is why Corey O’Soup wanted to focus on the positives in his annual report.
O’Soup noted there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in education and mental health, especially for First Nations and Metis children, but said there has been “promising progress.”
“We want to be a part of solutions and I believe that education is the solution that is going to break the cycles that our kids are in are in. We know those cycles, drugs, alcohol, trauma, violence,” O’Soup said.
Two highlights of progress O’Soup pointed to include the Following Their Voices program in schools and mental health capacity building in schools.
For O’Soup, improving mental health services is his primary focus. He sees it as one of the best ways to avoid publishing more tragic reports.
Hand-in-hand with education, O’Soup is happy to see funding in the provincial budget for building mental health capacity in schools.
Based on an Alberta model, this would see one or two extra staff in schools to help address mental health needs to students and point families in the right direction of applicable community resources.
The Alberta model began as a pilot in 2006, and now includes 182 schools, and 74 partners. O’Soup said last year more than 20,000 evaluations took place.
“I think if we can get our pilots up and running, and get some data I think it could be a potential game-changer for us here in Saskatchewan,” O’Soup said.
O’Soup and the advocate’s office have been pushing the province to introduce this model. Funding for a pilot project will be part of the $11.4 million in new mental health care spending.
However, there are budgetary drawbacks. O’Soup said there is an average two-year wait to see a child psychologist.
“I think those are times and places when we need to take a look at our budgets and the way we spend our dollars, and maybe refocus and reprioritize,” he said.
O’Soup added there is the capacity to help a child brought to the emergency room with a physical injury such as a broken leg, but when it comes to emergency mental health supports adequate care is lacking.
“They go to that same ER, that same health facility and they’re waiting 10, 12, 14, 16 hours, these kids with serious mental health issues and our system sends them away and they end up in one of our reports. That’s the most tragic of tragic incidents,” O’Soup said.
O’Soup says the suicide rate for Indigenous boys aged 10-19 is six times more likely to die from suicide. That figure balloons to 26 times more likely for Indigenous girls in the same age bracket.
Following Their Voices (FTV) is a program that currently exists in 26 on- and off-reserve schools, which incorporates Indigenous cultural practices into the curriculum. The goal is to build a stronger connections in the classroom with Indigenous students to help increase graduation rates.
O’Soup noted in his report the 2017 First Nations, Metis and Inuit grad rate in Saskatchewan for 2016-17 was a “shameful” 43.2 per cent, compared to 85.4 per cent for non-Indigenous students.
The 2015-16 Indigenous graduation rate was 41.8 per cent.
O’Soup said he doesn’t believe it is likely the province will achieve it’s 60 per cent Indigenous graduation rate goal for 2020, but it’s slowly heading in the right direction.
Another area O’Soup calls for improvement is closing the funding gap between reserve and off-reserve schools. While reserve school funding is federal jurisdiction, he wants to see reserves and the province lobby Ottawa together.
“I think were quite far along in that way. I think our government just has to take that big step and actually do it. I think many times they’ve said they support that, and said they may do that. But now we just have to do it,” O’Soup said.
Children in care
The amount of children under the care of the government has grown over the past five years. This covers both children in care at facilities like foster homes, and children-out-of-home-care. Social
Social Services Minister Paul Merriman attributes this increase to a wide variety of factors.
“It’s not just kids being removed from the home. There’s lots of wrap around services. Probably 80 per cent of our services that we have with our youth in care are wrap around services that are in the house or with a family member to make sure that child is safe, and we also want to make sure the reunification process is smooth for the child as well as the family,” Merriman said.
Merriman explained that out-of-home care entails children staying with a family member,like an aunt or uncle, or someone else in the community identified as a safe person. This lets them stay in close proximity to parents.
O’Soup said that kids in the social services system are disproportionately of First Nations descent. The minister believes improving communications channels between the ministry and First Nations communities is important, but a solution extends beyond the ministry.
“This is a community issue. It isn’t just a provincial issue or federal issue. We have to have all levels of government, with our First Nations also to be at the table, and making sure we’re providing the best quality care that we can,” Merriman said.
In his own office, O’Soup said they are working to build better relationships with First Nations communities. Before, O’Soup said when they called it meant there was an investigation and they were coming to “drop the hammer”. That’s something he wants to move away from, and foster better collaboration.