Kids in care must be heard: youth advocate

CALGARY — Alberta’s child and youth advocate says the suicide of a 15-year-old indigenous boy reinforces how crucial it is that the voices of children in provincial care be heard.

A report by Del Graff published Wednesday recounts the short and troubled life of the boy, called Levi for privacy reasons.

The report details a household marred by addiction, mental-health issues and violence. There were intermittent stays in foster homes and with other relatives, where Levi seemed to do relatively well.

Levi’s first encounter with child intervention services was when he was just two months old.

“Levi’s life was unpredictable and lacked the stability necessary for his healthy growth and development because of his exposure to family violence, parental addictions and homelessness,” Graff writes in the report.

Levi is described as kind and quiet.

When he was 11, there were concerns he had nowhere to live. When he was 12, he was discovered living in a tent in a yard because of his mother’s drinking.

Little is known about the final two to three years of Levi’s life.

“It is unclear where he was living or how his basic needs were met,” Graff writes. “At times, community members gave him food and clothing.”

The report outlines how shortly after he turned 15, Levi was taken to hospital for stomach pains after he’d been drinking for six days. He continued to drink after being released and went back to the hospital the next morning, but left without seeing a doctor.

He said he was depressed about a friend who had killed himself and talked about his own suicide by alcohol poisoning. Four months later, Levi took his own life.

The children’s advocate notes there were numerous occasions over the years when Levi made it clear he did not want to be around his mother when she was drinking, but there was no indication his feelings were acknowledged.

“This investigative review emphasizes the importance of making sure that children’s voices are heard and their perspectives considered in decisions made about them,” Graff writes.

“Children become invisible when they are not included in assessment and planning processes.”

He says he has urged a more child-centric approach to decision-making in three past reviews, so there’s nothing new to add in Levi’s case.

“Minimal progress has been made on these recommendations.”

The report also stresses the need for the government to develop ways to identify children early on who may be at risk of homelessness.

Children’s Services Minister Danielle Larivee says Levi’s story shows change is needed.

“We need to do better. When a young person reaches out to us to ask for our help, our instinct is to do whatever we can to support them,” she said in a statement.

“Albertans expect that their child intervention system would do the same. However, it is very clear that, in this case, Children’s Services did not do everything possible to support this young man to grow up safe and healthy.”

The case of a four-year-old girl named Serenity, who died in 2014 under suspicious circumstances while in kinship care, has become emblematic of problems with Alberta’s approach to child intervention.

Leaked reports to the media late last year revealed that before she died, Serenity was taken to hospital emaciated and hypothermic with signs of physical and sexual abuse. She died from severe brain trauma.

No one has been charged.

The case led to a political shakeup. Earlier this year, Notley carved out a separate Ministry of Children’s Services and assigned Larivee to run it.

She also struck an all-party panel to examine ways to better protect children in care.

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