Alberta's child and youth advocate released a special report Monday outlining ways the government can do a better job supporting LGBTQ2S+ youth.
Del Graff decided to examine the issue of how sexually- and gender-diverse youth are treated in the child welfare and youth justice systems after his office received a number of concerns from young people around the province.
LGBTQ2S+ is the term used throughout the report. It includes youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, Indigenous two-spirit and others.
"We have heard from LGBTQ2S+ young people from across the province who have not felt respected or supported by the adults and decision makers in their lives," Graff writes in Speaking Out: A Special Report on LGBTQ2S+ Young People in the Child Welfare and Youth Justice Systems.
'Derogatory and homophobic remarks'
Graff notes a number of positive changes and a movement towards hope and acceptance in his report, but also lays out some troubling examples of the challenges young people have faced in attempting to get support while receiving government services.
Not feeling safe was identified as a key issue by some of the 80 young people interviewed, with some disclosing they had even faced "derogatory and homophobic remarks by staff or caregivers."
A recurring theme raised by transgender youth was their workers' refusal to call them by their chosen names and pronouns.
Don't ask, don't tell
Stephan Bureau, now 24, shared his experiences in the child welfare system with the advocate's office.
"The biggest issue is just ignorance, not feeling like it was an issue that needed to be talked about or that I could even explore and I didn't even feel comfortable enough to explore it," Bureau said.
"It was like a don't-ask-don't-tell thing where you don't bring it up and they don't ask about it."
He was around 17 at the time and remembers feeling ashamed and in the dark about who he was.
Graff, who wore a rainbow pin at his Monday news conference, commissioned a literature review on the research about LGBTQ2S+ young people from the University of Alberta's Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services as a framework for his report.
'No child should ever feel bad about who they are.' - Del Graff, Alberta's child and youth advocate
The young people Graff's report is about face a set of unique challenges, he said, placing them at "heightened risk of self harm, addiction, depression, anxiety, homelessness and suicide."
He concludes that the lack of LGBTQ2S+ policies and practices and knowledge in the child welfare and youth justice systems mean those risk factors are often magnified.
"We can do more and we should do more," Graff said.
Youth reported feeling stereotyped
During interviews with the advocate's office, some young people revealed they had actually been told their sexual identities were "wrong," "just a phase," "a choice," or a symptom of their trauma.
The youth said those remarks came not just from family members but also caseworkers, foster parents and justice and medical staff.
Adding to their feelings of isolation, some youth said they felt stereotyped based on things like their appearance or mannerisms.
Social worker Sam Nels, who supports Graff's work, said raising the issue at this level can make a big difference for a growing number of young people discovering who they are.
"Take a youth and let's say they got kicked out of their family home and they're being bullied at school and now they're in this group home where they're not accepted by maybe some of the staff, maybe they're getting misgendered.
"How do we expect them to thrive in that environment?" Nels said.
Graff's special report includes several recommendations for the provincial government.
He's recommending the province introduce LGBTQ2S+ specific training for all employees who work with young people.
Graff is also recommending the Ministry of Children's Services and the Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General revise their policies on identity, safety, and services and supports for LGBTQ2S+ children and youth.
"No child should ever feel bad about who they are," Graff writes in his closing remarks.
A statement released by the Minister of Children's Services in response to Graff's report said the province needs to look for ways to better support LGBTQ2S+ youth.
In the emailed statement, Danielle Larivee pointed to the recent passing of Bill 24, which protects students in gay-straight alliances from being outed, as one of a number of initiatives already being introduced.
Larivee also said Alberta has created new Youth and Housing Shelter Guidelines which recognize the increased risk of homelessness that LGBTQ2S+ youth face.
In her statement, Larivee thanked Graff for "taking the time to thoughtfully engage" with vulnerable youth.