Challenges facing Sask. Indigenous youth are 'relatively flat or getting worse': children's advocate
Suicide numbers jumped year-over-year and grad rates rose saw a 'modest increase'
Mental Health and addictions are the number one issue facing Indigenous children and youth in Saskatchewan and progress is static in some areas, according to children's advocate Corey O'Soup.
"Our numbers are staying relatively flat or getting worse," O'Soup said. "If we aren't a little more critical, then those numbers won't get any better."
O'Soup tabled his annual report Tuesday.
Suicide numbers measured worse compared to the previous year and issues such as Indigenous grad rates remained static.
"It's important that we really shine a light on the children and youth of this province, and sometimes that light isn't always a positive light," O'Soup said.
He said the statistics are indicative of the widespread problems Indigenous youth are facing.
O'Soup's office investigates deaths of children who were in care, who had recently received government services or who were in the corrections system.
Twenty such children died last year and 16 of them were identified as First Nations or Métis. Eight of the youth died by suicide and twelve other youth attempted suicide. Those numbers are up from 2017 when 18 children died and two of those committed suicide.
The report noted that about 80 per cent of children and youth in care in Saskatchewan are Indigenous — well above the national average.
O'Soup said young Indigenous girls in Saskatchewan are 29 times more likely to commit suicide compared to non-Indigenous girls, according to statistics from the coroner's office.
The children's advocate said he believes every death is preventable, particularly when it comes to suicide or mental health related death, with the right resources.
Gaps in the system
O'Soup said Indigenous children continue to face a gap when it comes to accessing services, particularly in rural and remote communities. He said some youth are waiting up to two years for child psychiatric services.
The report notes 45 occurrences of critical injury involving 41 youth. Of those 41 children, only one was non-Indigenous.
"There are still far too many children waiting for too long," O'Soup said.
He said a nursing triage service in Saskatoon, which helps determine the seriousness of issues among youth requesting services, has dropped some wait times to 15 months.
Beyond mental health, O'Soup said there are widespread issues plaguing the entire child care system.
He said there are systematic gaps in policy, poor training or case management that exist within Saskatchewan's current child services model.
"That's why the children actually end up dying," he said, referring to non-accidental deaths.
O'Soup said he wants to see a growing focus on early intervention and prevention for youth facing mental health issues.
He said the province needs to listen to Indigenous kids and communities in order to find solutions and deliver mental health services. Furthermore, he said education is key to breaking cycles of trauma, suicide and addictions in Indigenous communities.
The report also highlights innovations and programs happening in the province to help young people, such as the Pinehouse Photography Club.
"Let's take these foundations that already exist and help young people around the province rather than always trying to come up with new strategies we can work collaboratively to produce better results," O'Soup said.
Saskatchewan Minister of Health Jim Reiter described two-year wait times as "atrocious," but said wait times for mental health supports have reduced in the province.
Reiter said children who need mental health help now wait about four weeks in Prince Albert, four months in Regina and about one year in Saskatoon. He said the SHA is hiring two more child psychiatrists, who will start in July, in hopes of further reducing wait times.
"It's still too long. It's decreased dramatically but we have more work to do," Reiter said of the wait times in Saskatoon. "We think that recruitment is going to help a lot."
Reiter also said the SHA is working on hiring more mental health professions in northern Saskatchewan.
Ryan Meili, leader of the Saskatchewan NDP, said making children wait 12 or 13 months is "dangerous."
"The kids who are needing to access mental health supports aren't getting that care in a timely fashion," said Meili. "As a result, you notice that a number of the children who died in foster care were death by suicide."
Meili said a situation where children wait months for care is a "crisis." He also called on the provincial government to begin a review of the child welfare system.
O'Soup says 'lobbyist' comment sets province back
Last week, Social Services Minister Paul Merriman came under scrutiny after he complained about provincial ministers being unable to speak directly with the federal government about child welfare reform without national Indigenous organizations being present.
"It creates a little bit of an issue if we can't, as a provincial and territory (group), have a conversation with our federal minister without a lobbyist in the room," Merriman told The Canadian Press last week. He issued an apology after facing criticism.
O'Soup decried Merriman's rhetoric and said governments have historically been patriarchal in their dealings with Indigenous people.
"I think those days should have been left in the past and unfortunately, this is what has come up," O'Soup said.
"Our Indigenous people, myself included, need to be around the table, particularly when decisions are being made about us, about our children, about our future."
O'Soup said categorizing Indigenous leaders as lobbyists sets Saskatchewan people back decades.
He said Indigenous people have an inherent right to be at the table and to care for, discipline and teach Indigenous youth.
"We see the direct results of what happens when we're not included," he said, pointing to residential schools.
O'Soup said there is a direct link between the issues facing Indigenous youth today and what transpired when Indigenous people were not at the table.
On Tuesday afternoon, Merriman told reporters that he hadn't changed his mind about the closed-door meeting.
"This isn't the final meeting. This is one of several meetings. We will have more meetings with the national indigenous organizations in the room," he said.