Youth suicides signal need for culture change in child welfare system: advocate
- November 22, 2017
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A third who died after being hit by a car.
All experienced traumas ignored by child welfare services, says a new report.
“These girls experienced significant early childhood trauma that was not addressed and impacted them throughout their young lives,” said Del Graff, Alberta’s child and youth advocate.
In a report released Monday, Graff urged a culture shift within child intervention services to focus on long-term supports.
In an interview, Graff said that shift needs to involve not just child welfare workers, but everyone who touches the lives of vulnerable youth.
“If the system … is going to shift to get upstream from these tragedies, they’ve got to start dealing with children in a more trauma-informed way,” he said.
“That’s the critical piece that can lead to us preventing these kinds of tragedies.”
Trauma can take many forms — the death of a loved one, witnessing drug or alcohol abuse, violence in the home.
But for vulnerable kids in care, like those in Graff’s latest report, it’s often one trauma after another, compounding the problem.
“It’s almost like they can’t catch their breath to get to a place of resolution,” Graff said.
“We’re calling on child services once again to say, ‘We need to do specific planning for these kids.’ ”
‘Born into unpredictability and violence’
The three girls, identified only by pseudonyms, shared common traumas from domestic violence, substance abuse within their families and mental health struggles. They also had multiple caregivers and histories of self-harm.
Graff said Monday the three deaths were grouped together because the systemic issues the girls faced were almost identical.
Tina, 13, had three family members who died by suicide. Graff’s report said she died by suicide while babysitting.
Shirley, 16, was visiting her quadriplegic mother at an extended living facility around the fourth anniversary of her father’s death. Shirley went outside, walked away from the building and was hit by a car. Graff’s report said the investigation couldn’t determine whether she put herself in harm’s way on purpose.
Jazmine, 19, had been stabbed multiple times by a boyfriend. At one point in her teens, she asked to be placed in secure treatment and said she felt “messed up.” Graff’s report said his office isn’t sure why Jazmine’s request for help was denied. Child intervention services had ended when she died by suicide. Not much is known about the 14 months leading up to her death.
“They were born into unpredictability and violence,” the report said of the three girls.
Graff made two recommendations involving the creation of cross-ministry training that focuses on early childhood development and culturally appropriate interventions for children and their caregivers.
Last week, Graff released a report on the suicide deaths of two Indigenous teen boys and also made recommendations.
Children’s Services Minister Danielle Larivee said Graff’s latest report makes it clear that, for too many First Nations people, trauma, grief and loss are deeply rooted in their families and communities.
In an interview Monday, she said her ministry began a training program in 2015 to help staff better recognize when children are dealing with grief and loss, and understand the effect.
Larivee said that program is in the midst of being rolled out across the province for all child welfare workers and caregivers.
“We can’t make all that grief and loss go away right away — that’s going to be a long-term approach on behalf of all levels of government,” she said.
“But what we can do is acknowledge (it), meet them where they’re at, and provide the support they need to recover from it and build resiliency.”