By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
(ANNews) – Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate Del Graf has released his final report before retirement, which details the deaths of 15 children over the past year, the CBC reports.
“We have recently seen an unprecedented number of deaths,” Graff said. “This is the largest report we have released during a six-month period, and it is troubling that this report contains the circumstances of so many young people.”
The report calls on the government to provide more support for children with complex needs and to do a better job of putting the advocate’s advice into practice.
“As our recommendations are currently not binding, the government must do more to hold ministries to account,” Graff wrote.
He suggested ministry officials regularly report their progress in front of a committee of MLAs as a gesture of enhanced oversight.
The advocate is required under Alberta law to investigate the deaths of young people who died in care within two years of their deaths, but there is no formal mechanism for the ministry to account for changes made as a result of the advocate’s recommendations.
The children whose deaths the report details range from ages 12 to 19. Fourteen of the 15 kids died between April 1 and September 30, 2021, while another died earlier but the investigation had been stayed until recently.
Graff observed that 11 of the children were Indigenous, “highlighting their continued vulnerability and over-representation in government systems.”
Five died from substance use, three by suicide and three were victims of homicide, in addition to three deaths from medical issues and one motor vehicle accident fatality.
There were four additional children who died in the six-month period the report covers, but because investigations into their deaths were stayed they will be included in a later report.
One of the children in the report, who is referred to as Barry, died from drug poisoning a day after he was released from a detox facility.
“The 15-year-old Alberta boy, who died in hospital last year after being found unconscious, loved sports, baking and rap music. But he’d had a difficult childhood,” the CBC reported.
From a young age, he was subject to parental substance abuse, housing instability and violence, and was moved from home to home. At five, Barry was diagnosed with severe fine motor and learning disabilities, as well as oppositional defiant disorder.
At 13, he was in government care, struggling with substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
Graff said that like many children who are failed by the system, he didn’t get the help he needed until it was too late.
“By the time services were offered to him, the negative impact of his experiences was deep and entrenched,” Graff said.
Because of the unusually high number of deaths investigated, Graff focused on common themes found in the children’s stories, such as gaps in care and service delivery that, if left unaddressed, will continue to put children at risk.
“These issues are not new,” he said. “Rather, they persist despite numerous recommendations to address them, which amplifies the need for stronger accountability.”
Graff added that caseworkers need to be better equipped to deal with the emotional injury, or trauma, these children experienced early in life.
“As these young people experienced increased difficulties in their day-to-day lives, the child-serving systems involved struggled to meet their evolving needs,” he wrote.
Terri Pelton, who’s served on Graff’s advisory team since 2011, will be sworn in as the new child and youth advocate on April 4.