Saskatchewan is seeing a troubling trend when it comes to deaths involving children connected to the child welfare system.
So far this year, 25 children and youth have died, closing in on last year’s total of 34 deaths, according to Saskatchewan’s social services ministry.
“This year is going to pass — I’m fairly certain — the 34 mark from last year,” Saskatchewan children’s advocate Lisa Broda told Global News in a recent interview.
“That is deeply concerning.”
Six of the children who died were in care, while the remaining 19 were receiving services or had families getting help from the social services ministry in the last 12 months.
All but one of those kids were Indigenous, many under the age of 5.
It’s too soon to tell why child welfare deaths are tracking upward, Broda said. Her office will start looking for trends this fall.
“Nothing is really standing out,” she said.
“It’s really important that we’re paying close attention to the trends, so that we can meet with the ministry officials and discuss… what we’re seeing and look for resolutions.”
In previous years, the advocate’s office has highlighted suicide and unsafe sleeping practices for infants as common causes of death.
‘It’s very alarming’
Like Broda, Saskatchewan Social Services Minister Paul Merriman said he’s unsure why so many vulnerable children and youth have died.
“It’s very alarming,” Merriman told Global News.
“We want to make sure that we minimize the amount of children in care that unfortunately pass away.”
The ministry analyzes the efficacy of its programs and works with Indigenous communities to ensure its services are meeting kids’ needs, Merriman said.
“We work with very vulnerable children and youth, and this includes those who are medically fragile,” the ministry said in an emailed statement.
“The ministry continues to work with parents and caregivers on key issues such as safe sleeping practices and suicide intervention and prevention.”
Despite those efforts, the numbers don’t indicate positive change. Last year’s total of 34 deaths was already up from an average of 21 deaths over the previous five years.
“Arguably, we’re all on the same page for the betterment of children and to ensure there are no deaths and injuries, however, it is a system and we know that there’s a lot of inherent problems in systems,” Broda said.
‘More care, more connection and more kinship’
One former child and family services worker said the system can be cold, sometimes leaving kids feeling disconnected from their families, communities and cultures.
“There needs to be more care, more connection and more kinship involved,” said Richard Aisaican, who worked for Yorkton Tribal Council Child and Family Services before becoming a Cowessess First Nation councillor.
Due to confidentiality concerns, child and family services agencies aren’t often forthcoming with information, Aisaican said. It can be challenging to assess the quality of their services, he added.
In order to pivot away from the current system, he said it’s crucial that First Nations create their own child welfare services under new federal legislation, passed as Bill C-92. Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan is in the process of reaffirming its control over child welfare.
“The major step is not to be paternalistic toward First Nations in any way,” Aisaican said.
Both he and Broda stressed the importance of prevention services focused on addiction, poverty, violence and mental illness, so more children can grow up in healthy homes.
People concerned about the well-being of a child can call the Office of the Saskatchewan Advocate for Children & Youth.