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Teen's suicide prompts calls for changes to child sexual exploitation law

The province has accepted new recommendations from a report on sexual exploitation and youth suicide, while the advocate who wrote it claims the Alberta government has been too slow to act.

Child advocate claims province acting too slowly on youth suicide prevention

The office of the Alberta Child and Youth Advocate has investigated the death of a 17-year-old girl who died by suicide. (iStock)

The province has accepted new recommendations from a report on sexual exploitation and youth suicide, while the advocate who wrote it claims the Alberta government has been too slow to act.

The Office of the Child and Youth Advocate of Alberta released findings Tuesday of its investigation into the death of 17-year-old Onessa, whose name was changed to protect her family's identity.

The teenager died by suicide, five months after child intervention services ended involvement with her.

According to the report, the teen had intimate relationships with adult men she met online. 

Child and youth advocate Del Graff said her experiences show a need to review child sexual exploitation laws which focus mainly on prostitution.

"The language needs to be broader," Graff said. "Certainly given this day and age with social media, a much wider definition must be applied."

The report points to the definition used by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the United Kingdom which proposes young people can be sexually exploited "for non-material needs such as affection, or social status; young people's social, economic or emotional vulnerability can limit their actual or perceived choice."

What the report found

The third point in the U.K. definition is that child sexual exploitation has to involve sexual contact and can happen online without the young person knowing.

The urgency is about the horrendous impact of youth suicide for families, for communities, for our province.- Del Graff, Alberta Child and Youth Advocate

Graff said what happened to Onessa seems to prove those points, and underlines why laws need to change.   

Onessa first showed signs of hurting herself when she was just 14. She was fighting with her mother, who found out the child was communicating with an adult man online.

A caseworker from child intervention services was assigned to help the teen and her mother, who fought physically and decided to live apart. Onessa moved in with an approved family friend.

When she was 16, the girl moved out on her own. She was working and subsequently moved in with a man she met over the internet. Soon after, she overdosed on prescription medication. She told staff at the ER that it was a "cry for help."

Onessa also revealed she had suffered trauma as a child and started cutting herself at age 12.

A psychiatrist found she had anxiety and dissociative symptoms typically shown within weeks of a traumatic event. She was discharged within just two days.

Recommendations

Child intervention services received a report on Onessa's time in hospital but requests for her medical records were denied. When contacted by a caseworker, Onessa refused to tell that person where she lived.

The teen said she had enough support from friends not to consider suicide again, and the caseworker agreed her relationship with child intervention services would now end.

About five months later, Onessa was found dead near her home. She was in a common-law relationship with a man five years older.

A few days prior to her death, Onessa was treated in hospital for a serious cut to her face. She told hospital staff the cut was the result of a fall, but they suspected it was caused by domestic violence.

"She was involved in online relationships with people who were much older and those had an impact in her life," Graff said.

In addition to the recommendations on sexual exploitation changes, Graff's office asked government to revisit many of the youth suicide prevention recommendations made in previous reports.

Call to action

"We are committed to working with the advocate in coming days," said Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir in an interview with CBC.

He said his government has accepted the recommendations from the report and plans to meet Graff soon to talk about a plan. The advocate, meanwhile, said he needs more action.

Since his first report in 2013, Graff said he has made 34 recommendations about youth suicide. The government has acted on eight.

"From my point of view, that's just not sufficient," Graff said. "And the urgency is about the horrendous impact of youth suicide for families, for communities, for our province."

Sabir said the sensitivity of the topics make it difficult to put a timeline on action.

"They are very important recommendations and they need our careful consideration," Sabir said.

"We will take the needed and necessary time to get this right."  

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