Alberta child advocate report underscores impact of pandemic, opioid crisis on youth in care

The office of Alberta's child and youth advocate was notified of 81 cases of serious injury or death for 2020-21 — an increase of 31 per cent over the previous reporting period.

Indigenous youth continue to be overrepresented in the system

Alberta Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff issued six recommendations in his annual report. (Submitted by Del Graff)

Alberta's child advocate says the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis are taking a serious toll on some of the province's most vulnerable children.

In his latest report, issued Wednesday, Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff said the office was notified of 81 cases of serious injuries and deaths of young people in need of intervention for 2020-21 — an increase of 31 per cent over the previous year.

But those numbers have remained consistently high in the preceding years: 62 in 2019-20, 69 in 2018-19, and 86 in 2017-18.

"It's a concern, because it continues to grow," Graff said, adding that this year is on track to surpass the last.

There are a host of factors at play, he said, but he is especially concerned by the opioid crisis. Of 72 deaths reported to the office, 14 per cent were accidental.

Preventing drug poisoning deaths requires helping young people develop the skills and supports to avoid turning to substances when faced with adversity, Graff said. 

The office released a report in June calling on the government to develop a youth opioid and substance use strategy.

Eric Engler, press secretary for associate minister of mental health and addiction Mike Ellis, said the government agrees with the recommendation in principle to better co-ordinate support and services. 

He said upcoming announcements will focus on improving access to recovery services and will be closely reviewing recommendations from the Child and Youth Wellbeing Panel's Report expected later this year

Pandemic issues

Graff said his office has been able to shift procedures during the pandemic, moving much of its activity to the virtual space. 

But COVID-19 has had a huge impact, magnifying existing issues because of isolation and stress. General inquiries to his office have gone up by about a third during the pandemic, Graff said.

The annual report has six new recommendations.

One recommendation first issued in March relates to suicide prevention — 11 per cent of deaths in the report were by suicide.

It asks Children's Services and Alberta Health host a forum to highlight actions taken in the first two years of the province's five-year youth suicide prevention plan and present steps for the next two.

Nancy Bishay, director of communications at Children's Services, said the office has accepted the intent of the recommendation and both the ministry and Alberta Health are committed to supporting its continuing implementation.

Within the next year, Children's Services and Alberta Health will work on a refreshed plan, she said. A forum or conference will be considered for when the pandemic is over.

Other recommendations involve file transfers, collaboration, treating families, review and revising Family Support for Children and Disabilities policy, and information about no-contact provisions.

Indigenous overrepresentation

First Nations, Métis and Inuit children are disproportionately represented within the child welfare system — 64 per cent of Alberta's overall child intervention caseload.

These youths can be affected by intergenerational trauma and come from impoverished families, according to Cheryl Whiskeyjack of the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society. Those issues would be best addressed within nations rather than the external "Western worldview."

"There's a reason why they're called First Nations children, because they literally have a nation."

Federal legislation may provide a path for that. Legislation passed in 2019 creates national standards on how Indigenous children are to be treated. For example, when looking to place kids in foster care, authorities are to prioritize extended family and home communities.

Whiskeyjack remains hopeful that while systemic change has been slow, a closer look within Bent Arrow shows some positive development. She said 40 per cent of the kids in care they are serving are within kinship care, meaning they are placed with a relative.

"Which means they don't have to try and find that connection when they're done with the system."