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Alberta child advocate issues call for changes to intervention system

A week after releasing a report pushing for improvements to Alberta's child intervention system, the province's child advocate is issuing a similar call to action after what he describes as another "terrible circumstance."

Report details tragic trajectory of sexually abused 17-year-old who attempted suicide

Alberta's child and youth advocate Del Graff in his latest review of the intervention system says major changes are needed. (CBC)

A week after releasing a report pushing for improvements to Alberta's child intervention system, the province's child advocate is issuing a similar call to action after what he describes as another "terrible circumstance."

Del Graff last week said changes are needed after a two-year-old girl was seriously injured in foster care.

His latest investigative review released Wednesday is about a 17-year-old girl who was moved more than 20 times to various foster homes and care homes before being seriously injured when she attempted suicide last year.

He insists the recommendations in his latest report be adopted, writing in the report that "Government must act."

Graff said in an interview he has "a level of frustration with the government" for not taking enough action in these types of cases, which he has documented before.

"I'm at a bit of a loss as to why we haven't seen more significant government action on this," Graff said. "I think people should be concerned just like I'm concerned. Why didn't anyone pick up on how desperate she was?"

Graff notes in the report the girl said she "lost a bit of herself each time she moved."

He talked to her as part of his investigation, and credits her with providing key insight into some of the systemic issues her case highlights.

Makayla is not her real name but a pseudonym to protect her identity.

Many sad stories populate the system

Graff describes Makayla's story as "distressing" but not uncommon for children involved in the child-intervention system.

She was first placed in foster care at the age of seven. That was because her mother had struggles with substance abuse, family violence and suicidal behaviours.

Each time she relocated she felt more disconnected, and that no one really cared about her.

During her years in care Makayla suffered physical and emotional abuse.

Just before her 17th birthday, years after it happened, she eventually disclosed she and her sisters were sexually abused when she was eight years old.

In his report, the child advocate notes the foster father admitted to the abuse and was charged.

After revealing she had been sexually abused, Makayla's life spun further out of control.

She didn't get any supports or resources to deal with her trauma.

Just before her 18th birthday, her mother died. Within weeks, Makayla was seriously injured and hospitalized after attempting suicide. That was in 2014.

She said since coming into care she wanted to end her life, feeling alone and unloved.

Girl tried to hang herself 

While she had harmed herself by cutting her arms and even tried to hang herself, a key theme that comes through in the advocate's report is that those who were caring for her weren't always aware of her troubled history.

The lack of communication between different care providers is something Graff has raised before.

He notes in the report that a psychological assessment showed Makayla needed a placement with clearly defined rules and boundaries.

Often she was placed with extended family members through kinship-care agreements.

While it had been recommended that those care providers should be assessed before she was placed with them to make sure they could handle her needs, Graff says this never happened.

"Thorough home assessments were not completed, so it was not known if they had the ability to provide the level of care that she required."

First placed in foster care when she was seven, her longest placement lasted approximately four years.

Last week, Graff raised concerns about a little girl he called Teanna, who was moved four times before she was two.

Now he's warning again how critical it is to reduce the number of moves for children in care.

"Multiple moves have a negative impact on a child's ability to develop trust. Children are less likely to form meaningful attachments when they don't know what to expect and have little or no sense of stability." 

Two recommendations

Graff made two recommendations: The first is that young people be assessed to identify the impact of traumatic events in their lives, and that case plans should then detail interventions to address the trauma. He also calls for regular reviews with progress documented.

The second recommendation is that placement moves for children be planned, and in situations where unplanned moves can't be avoided, mitigation strategies be put in place.

Makayla has now physically recovered from the injuries caused by her suicide attempt. But she continues with emotional struggles.

While she did well for a time after attempting suicide in a room-and-board setting, she eventually left.

While Graff believes she's back in her First Nation community, he doesn't know exactly where she's living and she's not in school.

Since 2012, Alberta's child advocate has released five reviews about young people who have died by suicide or have been seriously injured from suicide attempts.

Minister of Human Services Irfan Sabir issued a statement saying he was saddened by the hardships and trauma suffered by the youth in the latest report. The government recognizes that fewer placements are "crucial for a child's well-being" and that should be the goal whenever possible, the statement said.

Sabir said the government accepts Graff's recommendations and will work with him to implement them.

gareth.hampshire@cbc.ca

@cbcgareth

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