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Drugs behind deaths of nine Alberta youth in care: Child and Youth Advocate

EDMONTON — The office of Alberta's Child and Youth Advocate has released a report into the deaths of 15 young people in government care and most involved drugs.

Of the deaths that took place between October 2021 and March 2022, nine were a result of confirmed or suspected drug toxicity and 12 were Indigenous youth. Ages ranged from six to 19 years old.

In 2021, the advocate's office called for the United Conservative Party government to develop a youth-specific opioid and substance use strategy, but it said no progress has been made on that recommendation.

Advocate Terri Pelton said a harm-reduction approach is needed for youth with addictions to get their foot in the door to recovery.

One of the children in the report started using drugs at seven years old.

"If that's happening at seven, we really need to have substance education in schools," Pelton said Wednesday.

The report recommends the province address the over-representation of young Indigenous people in government systems. The report notes that understanding the effects of intergenerational trauma when working with Indigenous youth and their families is crucial for care providers to make appropriate decisions.

Pelton said that energy needs to be put into supporting Indigenous communities in providing services to youth.

"Ceremony and family connections have a heightened place in child welfare service delivery," said Pelton.

The report said one of the dilemmas that caseworkers face is a lack of resources and services when timely decisions need to be made for children in care. This includes proper housing and access to mental health programming. The report also said the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected access to resources that were already strained.

Most of the children in the investigation experienced family violence, parental substance use and unstable living environments. Some of the youths had mental health concerns, substance abuse issues and were not having their basic needs met.

The advocate suggests ministries need to collaborate with community-based partners and Alberta Health Services to expand their resources and address the complex needs of youth in government care.

Pelton has met with mothers of some of the children who say "their children deserved better."

While some initiatives are being developed, Pelton said immediate action is crucial to address service gaps.

Dan Laville, a spokesman for the provincial children's services ministry, thanked Pelton for her work and said there is no greater tragedy than the death of a child. 

"Children's Services will work with our partners across government to consider the recommendation for a coordinated action plan to address service gaps for young people with complex needs while longer-term initiatives are still under development," he said in an email. 

"As well, several initiatives continue to be underway that will improve access to mental health and addiction services to help youth and young adults receiving services stay safe."

Rebecca Schulz left the children's services portfolio earlier this year to run for the United Conservative leadership. Opposition NDP children's services critic Rakhi Pancholi said in a release that Schulz's successor, Matt Jones, has been "ineffective and absent from the job."

"This distracted government is costing children and young people their lives, and we need someone who is focused on taking these important recommendations seriously," Pancholi said. 

The Child and Youth Advocate investigates the deaths of children in care twice a year. In 2021, 33 deaths were reviewed, which Pelton said is one of the highest since the office began the investigations in 2012. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2022.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Angela Amato, The Canadian Press

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