Alberta's child advocate says 'checking boxes' approach to child welfare needs overhaul

·3 min read
Child Advocate Del Graff says his review of nine recent deaths of children and youth in Alberta points to weaknesses in Alberta's child welfare system.  (Submitted by Del Graff - image credit)
Child Advocate Del Graff says his review of nine recent deaths of children and youth in Alberta points to weaknesses in Alberta's child welfare system. (Submitted by Del Graff - image credit)

Some of Alberta's most vulnerable children are struggling to access care in a system focused on "checking boxes" and meeting deadlines, says the province's child advocate.

In his latest report, Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff says the child welfare system needs to measure its success based on the individual social outcomes of each child, not on hitting bureaucratic targets.

"A balance between quantitative measures and qualitative measures is needed," Graff said in his latest report, issued Tuesday.

"Social outcomes are challenging to meaningfully measure because they are often intangible and long-term. However, a fundamental change in the approach to measurement is needed to shift mindsets from 'hitting targets.'"

Graff details the deaths of nine young people between the ages of two years and 20. They died in a 14-month period of 2018 and 2019.

The report also documents feedback from more than 100 service providers in a series of virtual town halls held this spring.

Graff is calling on the government to review and change the way caseworkers track and evaluate children in their care. He recommends that access to, and awareness of, training be improved for all service providers.

Targets missing the mark

"During the town hall meetings, we heard that 'the symbols of achievement' — checking boxes that an assessment is done — sometimes sideline or displace what is actually supposed to be achieved," Graff wrote.

He said the focus of publicly reported quality assurance measures appears to be "primarily quantitative," with reporting focused on meeting timelines, readmission rates, recidivism rates and caseload volumes.

"Targets, such as meeting legislated or policy timelines, indicate that an activity has occurred, but provide limited insight into whether interventions were successful in achieving the desired social outcomes."

Services are often tailored to a specific concern without considering the longer-term safety and well-being of the young person, Graff wrote.

"Young people have histories and challenges beyond the presenting concern, and their circumstances are also likely to change over time, so assessments should not be viewed as a singular event but should be ongoing.

"Service providers should assess young people's circumstances within the context of their histories, families and communities, so they can respond to changing needs."

The children whose deaths are examined are identified in the report with pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

Many were exposed to substance abuse. All had been exposed to family violence. Seven of the nine were Indigenous.

Whitney, Josh, and Greg, three Indigenous siblings, died with their grandparents in a house fire.

Camden, a First Nation boy born with a heart condition, was cared for by relatives after his mother's suicide. He died of sepsis when he was eight.

Natalie, who struggled with addiction and suicidal thoughts, died at 20 after developing an infection in her heart valves.

Three others died of suspected or confirmed drug overdoses.

Trevor, a young First Nation man who dreamed of owning a construction company, was stabbed to death after joining a gang. He was 20.

Under Alberta legislation, the child advocate must conduct reviews into the deaths of young people who die in care or within two years of receiving care.

Trevor was receiving child intervention services when he died; the other eight had received such services within two years of their deaths.

The care the children received often failed to account for their family history, past traumas, or previous interactions with the child welfare system, Graff said in the report.

"Each involvement appeared to be viewed as a singular event, outside of the context of their whole history.

"Interventions did not appear to be holistic and appeared to be focused on the mandate of each service provider. At times, the physical, emotional and mental health needs of these nine young people did not appear to be met."

Graff said cross-ministry training and collaboration is critical so that care providers are working together, and informed of their responsibilities under the Children First Act.

He said consultations with service providers showed many were uninformed about the legislation and how it applies to them.

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