Saskatchewan's advocate for children and youth says 2020 was one of the worst years the province has had when it comes to children dying violently.
Earlier this week, advocate Lisa Broda released her annual report, which detailed how nine confirmed child deaths in the province last year led to police homicide investigations, or charges of murder or manslaughter. That was more than the last seven years combined.
The advocate's report does not identify any of the children who died, but family members of one of those children is speaking out about a lack of support.
The young boy was 14 when he was killed late last year. His family says the teenager was manipulated into a home invasion by an alleged member of the Hustle Crew street gang. Three people face charges related to the death.
One of the boy's older cousins told CBC he was trying to get the 14-year-old on a productive path.
"He was a smart kid, a loving kid," he said.
He remembers his cousin as a youngster who loved his family dearly and enjoyed playing video games with his cousins. He said if there had been more support for youth available, he may still be here, as would many of the other deaths in the 2020 report.
The older cousin remembers always having something to do as a youth thanks to various community groups and organizations, but said that level of access wasn't there for his cousin. He said the 14-year-old boy was craving a sense of belonging and turned to gang life for acceptance.
"The older gang members, they see that and they take advantage of that," the cousin said.
While his young cousin was lacking supports to begin with, things were magnified by the pandemic.
"The crisis really, really put a strain on things."
In her report, Broda also noted there were seven critical injuries and two deaths of youth who had involvement with gangs. She said she is working to "learn more about opportunities to better support young people in disengaging from gangs and reduce their risk of gang-related violence."
In a statement, Broda said her office is continuing to monitor the effect of the pandemic on children.
"I cannot make any conclusions at this time that the number of child deaths and injury notifications we have received related to violence is pandemic driven, but will not rule it out," she said, noting there is "deep concern" that family stresses and the reduction in services due to the pandemic are contributing factors.
Ministry working to make communities safer
Meanwhile, the province also saw an increase in 2020 of deaths among children who were either in the care of, or receiving services from, Saskatchewan's ministries of social services or corrections.
There were 38 such deaths in 2020, compared to 34 the previous year. First Nations and Métis children — who Broda said are "consistently over-represented" — made up more than 90 per cent of injuries and deaths of children in these situations.
She said her office will continue supporting "initiatives to reduce this reality," which includes putting support behind First Nations in efforts to take greater control of child and family services.
Saskatchewan's Social Services Minister Lori Carr offered her condolences to the families who lost a child in 2020, saying her government is working to bring those numbers down.
"One death is too many, no matter who the child is," Carr said. "We will absolutely continue to work with all of these families and community-based organizations."
Carr said the ministry is working "very closely" with community organizations to develop programs and services that will keep kids out of gang life. She pointed to Operation Runaway in Saskatoon as an example, saying the ministry is looking to bring a similar program to Regina while funding efforts to help kids stay clear of gangs in six other communities.
"They provide services and supports for children and youth who have either been exposed to gang activity or at high-risk of being exposed," she said.
She said the province does a review any time a child suffers an untimely death in the province.
More child well-being issues anticipated moving forward
In the report, Broda detailed how the presence of COVID-19 has created some obstacles when it comes to ensuring children are cared for, indicating a drop in child-abuse reports in 2020 may be the result of "not having as many eyes on children."
She said she expects to see an increase in child-abuse instances once front-line workers return to work as normal.
"It is crucial that government services are working to get under this now and increase investment to address the fallout post pandemic," she said in the statement.
Carr said the Ministry of Social Services is well-equipped to handle the expected increase.