Care workers must recognize past trauma, child advocate says in review of teen's suicide

A review into the suicide of a teen who had spent most of her life in government care has Alberta's child and youth advocate pointing to previous recommendations.

Del Graff says government needs to look after young people who 'urgently need help'

Del Graff, Alberta's child and youth advocate, released another investigative review that focuses on the suicide of a teen who was in and out of the province's care. The report was the sixth involving a teen's suicide that was released in the previous year. (CBC)

A review of the suicide of a 17-year-old Indigenous girl points to recommendations made a year ago — that government care workers need to do more to recognize the symptoms of trauma in young people. 

Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff's latest report looks at the suicide of "Susan," who was in and out of the province's care since she was a baby. She died two years ago.

Graff doesn't use the teen's real name in his report, which was released Tuesday. The death is the sixth reported suicide in a string of reviews that his office has conducted over the past year.

Susan faced a significant amount of trauma before she died. Her father was ill, her boyfriend had died in a car accident, and years earlier her stepmother died by suicide.

Graff determined her death warranted a review based on "potential systematic issues."

When she was younger, Child Intervention Services focused on returning her to the care of her parents, but those plans changed based on the sobriety of her parents. This led to "disrupting her schooling and relationships," the report states.

She was in the care of the same foster family for nearly a decade before living with relatives.

The report notes that there were other housing options for the teen. Caseworkers were aware of other relatives who were strongly connected to the same culture and traditions, but those connections were not pursued.

Susan suffered from issues with her mental health. She had previously been jailed for assault and was ordered to undergo psychiatric and psychological assessments.

"It appears that the justice and health systems were either unaware of each other' involvement or did not coordinate services to meet Susan's mental health needs," the report says.

In the report, Graff doesn't make new recommendations in reference to mental health services and suicide prevention, but points to previous recommendations for youth who "urgently need help."

In a November 2017 report, Graff reviewed the suicides of three Indigenous teens and recommended creating training related to the impacts trauma has on childhood development for all Alberta government ministries that serve children.

A second recommendation from the same report says the ministry of children's services ensure caregivers should receive "culturally appropriate, timely interventions that directly address the impact of trauma on the developing brain."

"We could see that those recommendations were applicable," Graff said on Tuesday.

"Recommendations that relate to issues that are present for, particularly, Indigenous young people who are involved in the child welfare system, but as well recommendations that we've made with respect to suicide and young people who die by suicide. Some things that we think could help prevent those types of tragic outcomes for kids."

Graff said that by pointing to previous recommendations, he isn't insinuating the Ministry of Children's Services is ignoring his advice.

"I wouldn't want to suggest they're not taking any action, but when we continue to see the circumstances for young people continue to be the same over time, we need to continue to raise it to government, to say we think that there's important work that still needs to be done, particularly in the areas of implementation.

"Government can deal with policy. They can deal with training for workers, but it's really the implementation that makes a difference for young people."

Children's Services Minister Daniel Larivee said she supports Graff's recommendations.

"Obviously we need to do better, particularly in terms of providing support to kids with complex needs," Larivee said. "That was strongly highlighted. We've been doing that work in terms of making sure we strengthen services in the child intervention system in general."

Larivee is expected to table a bill Wednesday that would make amendments to the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act.

Travis.mcewan@cbc.ca