Reviews of suicides of 2 Indigenous teens lead to more recommendations from child advocate

Alberta's Child and Youth Advocate is urging the province become more sensitive to the needs of at-risk youth after reviewing two more cases of Indigenous teenagers who took their lives.

Reports detail lives scarred by desperate childhoods in homes troubled by abuse, substance abuse

Del Graff's latest investigative review suggests some children have been denied services so often they have simply stopped asking. (CBC)

Alberta's child and youth advocate is urging the province become more sensitive to the needs of at-risk youth after reviewing two more cases of Indigenous teenagers who took their lives. 

Del Graff's reports, which do not use the teens' real names or say where they lived, detail disheartening stories of children scarred by desperate childhoods in homes troubled by abuse, substance use and neglect.

"These tragedies are just heartbreaking in so many ways," Graff said in an interview. "When we see that young people are struggling and they experience trauma and eventually end up taking their own lives, it's just a sad circumstance for everyone involved."

The cases are the first two Graff has reviewed since he criticized the province in an April 2016 report on the deaths of seven young people, saying action was long overdue on the Indigenous youth suicide crisis.

Last month the province published a six-page response accepting the intent of the recommendations and including a commitment to work with Indigenous communities to implement them.

But Graff is now making new recommendations in the two latest cases.

Teens grew up in abusive, unstable homes 

"Some community organizations have indicated that young people whom they work with have been denied services so often, they have simply stopped asking," Graff wrote in his review of a teen he calls Jimmy.

Graff describes Jimmy as a kind young man who never felt he belonged with his family.

By the time he was 12, Jimmy had already lost several family members to suicide.

Asked for help four times

Surrounded by chronic alcohol abuse and violence, he left home at 13 to live with relatives, but felt unwanted.

When he was 15 and homeless, he unsuccessfully sought help from child intervention services four times.

Jimmy faced too many barriers when asking for help, the report said.

"Ongoing support was not offered because it was believed he had places to stay," Graff said in his review. 

Jimmy's 19-year-old sister became his legal guardian, but Jimmy didn't think she was capable of caring for him.

After some time in a shelter, he moved into an apartment with his sister, but two weeks later there were concerns he was drinking and violent.

When a child intervention worker learned that Jimmy was angry and suicidal and would not leave his room, police were called.

Jimmy was found dead in his room.

In light of Jimmy's death, Graff recommends the province adopt policies that reflect the needs and vulnerabilities of at-risk adolescents who ask for help.

Denied call to his mother

The second review Graff released Monday details the death of Donovan, a quiet and good natured boy who was sometimes impulsive. 

The 17-year-old died by suicide while in custody in a group home after being denied a phone call to his mother.

Donovan was first taken into care at  the age of 18 months. He later spent time in and out of youth justice facilities for crimes often fuelled by drugs or alcohol.

He had cut his wrists before being moved to the group home, but claimed it was out of frustration over not getting attention.

Graff said the youth criminal justice protocol notes the importance of family connections, but he expressed concern the policies are not always being followed.

"Despite the protocol, the advocate has identified that young people in custody are reporting their loss of connection with family whether by distance or by limited or no telephone access."

Graff's review of Donovan's death led him to recommend the Ministry of Children's Services and Justice and Solicitor General work together to help youth stay in contact with their families.

He's urging the government to implement his recommendations.

In a statement Monday, Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee said the government will look at the recommendations "and explore what actions we can take to address the challenges the advocate identified."

Larivee said the loss of Jimmy and Donovan to suicide "is a tragic reminder of the urgent need for all orders of government to work together to address this crisis. We are committed to working, across government, to do more on this critical issue."


Gareth Hampshire is an award-winning journalist who began his career with CBC News in 1998. He has worked as a reporter in Edmonton and is now based in Halifax.