Child advocate tells government to listen to at-risk children after heart-rending teen suicide

Alberta's watchdog for youth is once again telling the government to involve children in decisions affecting their care in a new investigative review about the suicide of a 15-year-old boy.

No indication that 15-year-old’s concerns were acknowledged, Del Graff writes in latest report

Child advocate Del Graff says children receiving intervention services have a right to be heard and participate in decision-making. (CBC)

Alberta's child and youth advocate is making an impassioned plea to the government's child-intervention system to do a better job of listening to children the system is helping.

In a report released Wednesday, Del Graff says there is a pressing need for the government to develop an approach that concentrates on the children after the suicide death of a 15-year-old First Nations boy in Alberta more than two years ago.

The disheartening details of his troubled life are outlined in Graff's latest investigative review titled "15 year old Levi." (Levi is a pseudonym.)

Levi's first involvement with child intervention services happened when he was two.

As he got older he made it clear he was unsettled by the family violence and drinking that was happening in his home, but Graff said the system generally responded by trying to support his mother.

Recommendations in previous reviews

"The child intervention services focused on addressing Levi's mother's addictions and mental health concerns," wrote Graff in his report. "Although Levi told adults how he was feeling [or showed them through his actions] there was no indication that his views were acknowledged."

In a statement Wednesday, Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee acknowledged the government "needs to do better" in cases like Levi's.

"When a young person reaches out to us to ask for our help, our instinct is to do whatever we can to support them," Larivee said. "Albertans expect that their child intervention system would do the same. However, it is very clear that, in this case, Children's Services did not do everything possible to support this young man to grow up safe and healthy."

The minister said that while some changes have been made since Levi's death, "this story reminds us that we must never stop looking for ways to better support our most vulnerable youth. Our government commits to learning from the mistakes made in this case, and to making improvements to ensure that we are there for young Albertans when they need us most."

In spite of outlining his concerns, Graff does not make any new recommendations in his report around the issue of child-centred versus family-centred intervention. Instead, he refers the government to four recommendations he's already made in previous investigations.

"We see it far too frequently where the planning is focused primarily on the parents' behavioural change and not adequately on care for the child or the child's experience, in terms of trauma and difficulty and the turmoil that comes from that," Graff said in an interview Wednesday.

The report shows how after a tumultuous childhood, Levi began to turn things around when at age eight he began living with a foster parent.

But although he wrote to his mother to say he loved his foster father and wanted to stay there forever, he was returned to his mother's care.

Things began to unravel after he turned 11.

When he was 12 he was found living in a tent to get away from his mother's drinking but no action was taken.

"Homelessness, when you are an 11- or 12-year-old child, is a child intervention issue and in many ways that's as concerning as the other issue," Graff said in the interview.

Levi was later rushed to hospital twice at the age of 15 because he was now depressed and drinking, but there was no follow-up with child intervention or mental health services.

He was found dead after taking his own life the morning after spending an evening with friends.

"Not ensuring and considering a child's voice in circumstances of maltreatment further marginalizes and victimizes them," wrote Graff, who notes he was unable to talk to the teen's mother in this case.

The advocate makes two recommendations in his report including involving children in decision-making and developing a way to identify kids who may be homeless.