Young homicide victim's voice not heard by child-welfare system, advocate says in report

Young homicide victim's voice not heard by child-welfare system, advocate says in report

A new report from Alberta's child advocate into the life and death of an 18-year-old Indigenous man calls on the government to do a better job of transitioning troubled young people out of care.

"The Ministry of Children's Services should ensure that policies regarding transitioning youth out of care are fully understood and implemented," Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff wrote in his investigative review into the case of a homicide victim he calls Peter.

"The ministry must provide information that demonstrates how these policies are implemented consistently across the province."

In the report, released Tuesday, Graff also called on the government to start acting on recommendations made after an earlier death.

Peter — the report does not use his real name — was a gifted artist who first came to the attention of child intervention services when he was two years old.

His parents were both abusing substances and unable to care for their children. Peter and his siblings were placed with their grandparents.

Over the next 16 years, Peter was in and out of care with other relatives and in group homes. He abused drugs and alcohol, was involved in criminal activities, and was despondent about the loss of many close relatives.

Nine months after his 18th birthday, Peter was the victim of a homicide.

The report was prepared because he died within two years of receiving child intervention services.

Children's Services minister responds

Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee responded to Graff's report in a written statement.

"Peter showed resilience in the face of repeated trauma and loss," the statement said. "Understanding and responding to this kind of trauma is a critical part of success in the work of Children's Services. That's why we've begun implementing changes to better recognize and address the long-term impacts of grief, trauma and loss on the youth we support."

Larivee said Children's Services is continuing to adapt its practices to support at-risk youth with complex needs transition into healthy, successful adulthood. "While the advocate noted that transition policies are in place, every young person faces different challenges and we have to do more to support them in ways that recognize their unique circumstances."

She also noted that Children's Services is developing a cultural understanding framework to help deliver services better for Indigenous children, youth and families.

A life of loss and trauma

Peter was raised in a family and a community that endured historical and ongoing losses and trauma.

When he was two, his older sister was killed in a car accident. When he was eight, his father died. At nine, the grandparents who took care of him both died within a year of each other. When he was 12, his mother committed suicide. At 17, he lost a brother to substance abuse.

Graff said he was not making any new recommendations in his report on the way Peter's trauma and loss was addressed.

He said he had already made those recommendations in a previous review that applies directly to Peter's circumstances.

That report, "17-Year-Old Makayla: Serious Injury," was released in 2015. It said the government needs to assess young people who have experienced traumatic events and develop plans to help them.

Graff said the kind of losses Peter experienced would have required significant assistance.

"What we understand is that there was some effort made for him to access counselling but it wasn't followed up on and he didn't, in fact, receive the kind of trauma counselling that he would have needed given his circumstances," Graff said.

Concerns about turning 18

The report found that Peter's troubles intensified as he got older. In his mid-teens he was offered residential addictions treatment, but refused. After an arrest at 15, he was placed in a rural group home where he remained for two years. But he continued to abuse substances and was arrested for assaulting group home staff.

Just before he turned 17, he was accused of assaulting a younger relative.

After his brother died, he became more violent and was using substances more.

"Peter told a caseworker he felt that no one cared about him and that he was anxious about turning 18 and having no plan," Graff wrote in the report. "He wanted to return to his First Nation but had nowhere to go."

After more trouble, he was moved to a new group home but continued to abuse alcohol.

When he was intoxicated, "he became distraught and aggressive," Graff wrote in the report. "He talked about killing himself and wanting to be with relatives who had passed away."

Group home staff were concerned that Peter was about to turn 18 without the benefit of transition planning to adulthood.

A month before he turned 18, Peter was moved to another group home, and a day after that he overdosed, because he didn't want to live without his girlfriend.

An assessment found he had addictions, depression related to his history of losses, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. His cognitive functioning was at a Grade 3 to 5 level.

Peter was worried about what would happen to him when he turned 18 and would no longer receive services.

"He was concerned about the fact that there wasn't a plan that he had identified or that was identified with him," said Graff. 

'Peter asked for help many times'

He met with his caseworker and said he didn't want services beyond his 18th birthday. His group home placement was extended so his decision could be revisited. 

Three weeks later, Peter met with his caseworker and declined further involvement. He was given information about addictions and mental health resources. He returned to his First Nations community and stayed with a relative.

Nine months later he was the victim of a homicide.

"Through his actions, Peter asked for help many times; and many times he voiced his anxiety about reaching adulthood without a plan, alone and unloved," Graff writes in the report.

"Peter's voice was not heard and this may have contributed to him not wanting services beyond his 18th birthday."

He said the transition planning for getting young people in care to being on their own is critical.

'Years and years and years'

"We've been speaking about this issue for years and years and years," he said. "We really see that it's important for it to be attended to in a more substantial way, and that's what was really reflected in the recommendation with Peter."

Graff said the government does have adequate policies and supports in place to address the concerns about youth when they turn 18 but more needs to be done to make sure those policies are acted on more consistently and thoroughly.

"The concern we have is that the action needs to be taken in a more robust way," he said.

"We have young people in the province who are in the child welfare system and who have received significant trauma in their lives and who need supports and so we're quite clear we need to have a more effective way of doing that."

Graff said while some of his previous recommendations have resulted in government action, more needs to be done.

"I hope that reports like Peter's and others that we've done are recognized for the value that they bring, in terms of recommendations that can actually make a difference for young people — if they're acted upon," he said.

nola.keeler@cbc.ca

@nolakeelerCBC