Alberta child advocate highlights heartbreaking stories behind 10 recent deaths

·5 min read
Alberta Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff (Del Graff - image credit)
Alberta Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff (Del Graff - image credit)

Violet, Chase, Kiari and Wiley died from drugs or alcohol. Kai and Libby died by suicide.

All six were teenagers, their stories told in heartbreaking detail in the latest report from the Alberta Child and Youth Advocate, tabled Thursday in the legislature.

Advocate Del Graff said his office received death notifications for 12 young people between April 1 and Sept. 30, 2020.

Under Alberta legislation, the advocate must conduct mandatory reviews on young people who die while in care or within two years of receiving care. Three mandatory reviews were put on hold at the request of the Crown or police, and one was conducted belatedly to ensure the family did not experience "undue hardship."

Eight of those profiled in the report were male and eight were Indigenous. The youngest was 13, the oldest 19.

Four of the deaths were due to suspected or confirmed drug overdoses. There were two suicides and two homicides. A 16-year-old boy died from hypothermia with alcohol and drugs in his system, and a 14-year-old died of natural causes due to his fragile medical condition.

"These 10 young people came from different backgrounds, circumstances and regions of Alberta," Graff wrote. "[They] faced difficulties with substance use, violence and other serious issues."

The young people and their families were given pseudonyms in the report to protect their identities.

Intergenerational trauma

Violet died of a drug overdose at age 14. Her life was punctuated by adult substance abuse and violence.

The report described her as "a beautiful First Nation girl" who was "artistic, creative and empathetic and had a great sense of humour."

Violet's grandmother was a residential school survivor and struggled with substance use as a parent and grandparent. Both her parents abused drugs and sometimes her father was violent.

Before she was five, child welfare got involved with the family seven times because of substance abuse and violence.

"Each time, their involvement ended because Violet's caregivers said they were willing to protect her," the report noted. "The concerns regarding substance use and family violence remained unresolved."

By 13, Violet was self-harming and thinking about suicide. She was using drugs and agreed to a voluntary youth residential treatment program. One month after completing treatment, she went to the hospital because she thought she had overdosed.

Child welfare did not intervene, according to the report, because in the past Violet's father had taken the necessary steps to make sure she was supported.

Two weeks after she was released from hospital, she was found unresponsive in her bed.

"Violet was an incredible kid," one professional who tried to help wrote. "She wanted better and to have a different life, but she had so much trauma."

Graff noted that Violet and her family were all victims of intergenerational trauma.

"I have previously identified the need to increase the availability of whole family residential treatment programs in Alberta," Graff wrote. "This recommendation was not accepted by the government."

'Chaotic' life of teenage homicide victim

Teddy, 15, was a homicide victim. Graff's report noted the teenager dreamed of joining the military, but struggled with depression, oppositional defiant disorder and ADHD.

Teddy was arrested when he was 12 for assaulting his father. He was released from custody into a group home that specialized in supporting young people with mental health concerns. Eight months later, when he was released back to his parents, his mental health deteriorated and he began to hear voices.

"The next two years of Teddy's life were chaotic," the report noted. "He began to use substances and was expelled from school."

He was arrested twice for assaulting his parents and the court issued a no-contact condition for Teddy's father. The teen spent six months in a residential facility and wanted to return home, but the no-contact condition prevented that.

"The condition to not have contact with his family was not reasonable given Teddy's age and dependency on his parents," Graff wrote.

Teddy was prepared to go to court to have the provision changed, but the court date was adjourned for a month.

"Teddy was upset and left his placement," the report said. "The following morning, Teddy was found deceased. He was a victim of homicide."

Graff recommended that Alberta Justice make sure that when no-contact conditions are imposed, information about how to get them revised or removed be made clear to the young people and their caregivers in simple, easy to understand language.

Isolated and alone

Before Libby killed herself at age 16, she wrote about feeling like no one understood her.

The Indigenous teenager's life spiralled out of control at age 12 when her mother took her own life and she was separated from her little brother.

"Libby had suicidal thoughts and started to self-harm," the report said. "Four months after her mother's passing, she attempted suicide. She was hospitalized and found to be suffering from acute trauma."

When her extended family was no longer able to care for her, Libby was made a permanent ward of the government.

At age 14, Libby identified as non-binary and pansexual. Her casework team was supportive.

The pandemic put Libby's First Nation into lockdown and she was unable to visit her mother's grave or her extended family. Just before she died, Libby was told her child intervention file was going to be transferred, and the support workers she had become close to and relied upon would no longer be in her life. She felt isolated and alone.

Libby died by suicide a month after she turned 16.

Graff noted that in 2016 he wrote a report on the high rates of Indigenous youth suicide.

"Despite my call for action and change in 2016, the suicide rate for Indigenous youth remains unchanged," he wrote.

He recommended a forum hosted by Alberta Health and Children's Services be held to highlight actions taken and the results during the province's first two years of the five-year youth suicide prevention plan, along with targets for the next two years.

"Since the provincial action plan was released," he wrote, "I have received 15 additional notifications of death for young people who died by suicide."