Edmonton

Deaths of young people in government care continue to climb, Alberta child advocate says

Alberta could be on track for another record year for the number of young people who died while involved in the child welfare system.

Terri Pelton says 56 young people recently in care have died in the last eight months

A swing set is seen in the snowy school yard of an elementary school painted in two tones of blue.
The Alberta Office of the Child and Youth Advocate says 56 children and young adults who've been involved with the child intervention system have died in the first eight months of the current year. (Kiyoshi Maguire/CBC)

Alberta could be on track for another record year for deaths as youth continue to die while being involved in the child welfare system.

New data from the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate shows 56 children and young adults died in the first eight months of the 2022-23 fiscal year. Terri Pelton, the child and youth advocate, has also received notifications of seven young people who were seriously injured.

The data comes as Pelton's office received reports of 77 deaths and seven serious injuries to young people in the last fiscal year.

"I'm sad to let you know that these trends are continuing," Pelton told a legislative committee on Friday in Edmonton.

The advocate is tasked with reporting on the deaths of any child or young adult who has been involved with the province's child intervention system during the previous two years.

Pelton's reports capture some tragedies that are not included in provincial government reporting on child deaths.

The advocate said in the previous year, her office saw a 62 per cent increase in the number of deaths that needed a mandatory review.

On Friday, Pelton asked the committee for a six per cent budget increase, to run a $16.2-million operation next year. It would include a new full-time investigator and an Indigenous knowledge keeper to help offer culturally appropriate services.

"This sharp increase is placing a significant strain on our resources," she said.

Forty-eight of the 63 young people who died or were reported injured so far this year were Indigenous — a disproportionate representation that has existed as long as the government has collected data.

The province has taken some action on 13 of 24 recommendations the office has issued during the past year. However 11 recommendations remain unmet, particularly relating to a crisis of opioid poisonings, Pelton said.

The most critical action, according to a spokesperson from the advocate's office, is for the provincial government to establish a dedicated panel or commission to develop a youth opioid and substance use strategy.

Advocate wants more transparency on improvements

Children's Services Minister Mickey Amery was unavailable for an interview on Friday. His office said it would have more information available next week.

Pelton is pushing for the government to be more transparent about the progress on her recommendations.

NDP children's services critic Rakhi Pancholi said the public deserves more information from the government than just numbers published by the ministry and the advocate office's reports.

"My heart just absolutely sinks," Pancholi said about the new data. "I wish I could say that I was surprised, but I'm not."

A recent mandate letter to Amery from Premier Danielle Smith asks him to review the province's foster care system and attempt to promote longer-term placements.

Pancholi said she was troubled to see no mention of kinship care in the letter, whereby children who are apprehended from their parents are placed with relatives. Kinship caregivers need more support from government to make those placements successful, Pancholi said.

She also pointed to a shortage of social workers employed both by the government and contractors who work with families.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.

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