4 in 5 people who died last year while receiving child welfare in Alberta were Indigenous

Advocates and researchers are calling for the Alberta government to decolonize the child welfare system after a record number of children, youth and young adults died last year — about four-in-five of whom were Indigenous.

Provincial data shows 49 people died while receiving child intervention services in fiscal 2021-22 — the most in a year according to publicly available data. It is an increase of 15 deaths from the previous year.

Thirty-nine of those who died were Indigenous — the most since at least 2008-09, and an increase of 16 deaths from the previous year.

“[The deaths] may be surprising to people who are not Indigenous,” said Audra Foggin, a Sixties Scoop survivor and a Mount Royal University assistant professor of child studies and social work. She is a member of Frog Lake First Nation.

“[Cultural genocide and assimilation] is very real today. The continuation of the Sixties Scoop, of Indian Residential School, is still happening today.”

The figures released by Alberta Children’s Services include children and youth in families who are being assessed to determine if intervention is required; those remaining at home while their family receives services to resolve matters of concern; those placed in care, such as kinship or foster homes; and young adults who aged out of the system and are receiving support and financial assistance to transition into adulthood.

The data includes a breakdown of how many of the people who died were Indigenous and non-Indigenous, as well as how they died. The figures do not show who was First Nation, Métis, or Inuit.

The manners of death for most who died last year are still pending review from Alberta’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, but the deaths of six of Indigenous people have so far been labelled accidental.

Four other people’s deaths were not investigated by the OCME, suggesting those people may have been receiving medical care and an attending physician determined they died of natural causes.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated people’s mental health and addictions — particularly those addicted to opioids — and strained and isolated individuals and families, all of which likely contributed to more children, youth and young adults dying in general, advocates and experts told CBC News.

“We haven’t seen numbers like this in the time we’ve been doing reviews,” said Terri Pelton, Alberta’s new child and youth advocate, in an interview with CBC News. Pelton replaces former child advocate Del Graff who retired in March after 11 years in the position.

“The pandemic has to be the linchpin.”

In April, Alberta Children’s Services released a report that detailed the findings of a review into the spike in child welfare deaths last year. It did not focus specifically on the deaths of Indigenous people, but the report did note a correlation between the pandemic and more deaths.

The Office of the Child Youth Advocate will be releasing a report in the coming months that further explores the impact of the pandemic, Pelton said.

Foggin agrees the pandemic likely impacted Indigenous people and communities, but says the current high rates of death of Indigenous people receiving child intervention services have deeper ties to colonialism and the systemic racism Indigenous people have faced for generations.

Indigenous people still overrepresented: data

Indigenous children and youth have been overrepresented in the child welfare system for decades.

The Sixties Scoop and what some call the Millenium Scoop — the continued systematic removal of Indigenous children, resulting in higher rates of children and youth in the child welfare system than in the Sixties Scoop — have forced many to grow up away from their families and communities, and disconnect with their cultural identity as a result.

Those placed with white families also grew up with caregivers who could not truly empathize with the discrimination the children and youth may have faced day-to-day, Foggin said.

Nearly 10,100 children received child intervention services in an average month last year, provincial quarterly statistics show. About two-thirds of that caseload were Indigenous people.

There were about 8,100 children and youth in care in the average month last year. More than 70 per cent of them were Indigenous, data shows.

The provincial government estimates about 10 per cent of children and youth in Alberta are Indigenous.

Additionally, Indigenous children in care having worse outcomes and higher death rates than non-Indigenous children has been known for a long time, said Hadley Friedland, a University of Alberta associate law professor with expertise in Indigenous and child welfare law.

“Something different needs to be done in child intervention services for Indigenous children,” said Friedland, who co-founded the university’s Wahkohtowin Indigenous Law and Governance Lodge.

As of June 30, eight children, youth and young adults receiving child intervention services in Alberta have died so far this fiscal year, provincial data shows.

Seven of them were Indigenous.

Alberta must listen to Indigenous communities: Pelton

Reducing the number of Indigenous children in care is a priority for Alberta Children’s Services, a ministry spokesperson told CBC News in a statement via email.

The April report detailed six new actions the ministry committed to taking. None explicitly addressed Indigenous people, but one related to strengthening kinship care — when a child or youth is placed with an extended relative, or someone with a “significant connection” to them. 

The Alberta government’s website says kinship caregivers can lend “guidance and reinforcement of a child’s cultural identity and positive self-esteem.”

Other initiatives are already underway, the report says, including kinship caregivers receiving $900 when a child is placed with them, in part to help with unexpected costs of care.

Pelton says kinship care is a good place to start, but she wants Indigenous communities to be able to care for their children — and have the autonomy needed to do things differently.

“We’ve been doing the same thing for years in a colonial type of way,” Pelton said.

“Indigenous communities want what’s best for their children. We need to listen to what they say they need, not tell them what we think they need.”

Three years ago, Parliament passed Bill C-92, federal legislation passed three years ago that affirms the jurisdiction of Indigenous people over child and family services. But the transition is still ongoing.

In June, Opposition NDP Children’s Services critic Rakhi Pancholi called on Matt Jones, who took over the ministry portfolio on June 21, to outline how he will support implementing Bill C-92.

Pancholi told CBC News this month that neither she nor some child welfare agencies have heard from Jones directly.

Children’s Services is committed to working with Indigenous communities to develop agreements that will help them have greater authority for child and family services, Andrew Reith, Jones’ press secretary, told CBC News in an email.

The ministry will continue working with First Nations that want to take over child welfare services, as well as the federal government, to reach co-ordination agreements that are led by Indigenous leaders to ensure children and youth receive the best possible care, he said.

In the meantime, Pelton wants Indigenous people and communities to have more influence when it comes to caring for Indigenous children, youth and young adults, and for there to be more community connections — from family to elders and knowledge keepers.

Foggin, of Mount Royal University, also wants Indigenous communities to have greater autonomy — but they also need the money to care for these young people properly, she said.

“You can’t expect communities to be autonomous, and to have the wherewithal to be expected to be successful, if you’re essentially setting communities up for failure by not providing the correct funding,” Foggin said.

Also, until the transition is made, Children’s Services policies and the metric used to assess young people and their development should start incorporating Indigenous worldviews, she said.

Foggin also suggested, for example, developing something similar to the criminal justice system’s Gladue reports — documents that weave an Indigenous person’s experiences, including challenges they face due to colonization, that judges must consider before determining a sentence.

The mechanism is intended to make the criminal justice system more equitable for Indigenous people.

More than 2 in 5 people who died were young adults: data

Of the record 49 Albertans who died while receiving child intervention services last fiscal year, 22 were young adults receiving support and financial assistance (SFA), provincial data shows.

SFA agreements are offered to people aged 18 to 24 — although the Alberta government will be dropping the eligibility age to 22 — who had been in care but aged out of the system. They’re intended to help those young adults transition into adulthood.

Data shows the number of people in this group who have died has been quite low historically, but the counts have been climbing since fiscal 2019.

“It signals a gap in care,” Friedland said.

In 2019, the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate released a report that examined young adults leaving Children’s Services care.

When a person doesn’t have connections, such as a family, and if they have mental health issues or disabilities, becoming a self-sufficient adult is more challenging without proper financial and social support, it says.

The COVID-19 pandemic — through further social isolation resulting from public health restrictions, and worsening mental health and addictions — was likely a significant factor in the rising number of deaths in this age group, Friedland and Pelton each suggest.

Opioid deaths rise during COVID-19

Opioid overdose deaths have risen during the pandemic. Most people dying from opioid overdoses are in their late 20s or 30s, Alberta substance and surveillance data shows.

The April Children’s Services report says opioid overdose deaths among people aged 18 to 23 have about doubled since 2019.

That year, 625 people in that age group died. But from January 2021 to October 2021, 1,247 people in that age group had died from opioid overdoses, the report says.

Young adults aged 18 to 23 receiving intervention services make up 0.6 per cent of that demographic’s population. But those young adults accounted for about 10 per cent of opioid deaths in that age group from 2017 to 2021, the report says.

Provincial data shows there have been more suicides since fiscal 2018 than in previous years.

Most of last year’s deaths are still pending review by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, but at least two were suicides.

Pelton is cautiously optimistic that things will improve for young adults receiving support, noting they should be able to see people more often as the Alberta government has dropped its COVID-19 restrictions.

The province also launched the Transition Adulthood Program, which, in addition to money, offers other supports such as check-ins with a caseworker and skills development.

As of June 30, three young adults receiving SFA have died, data shows.

13 young children died last year: data

Thirteen children aged zero to five died last fiscal year, the second-most deaths of any age group, data shows. But that’s on par compared to death counts from years past.

Many of the deaths can be attributed to this age group being the most medically fragile, according to the Children’s Services report released in April.

The report suggests the pandemic may have exacerbated this. If there was someone — or were people — in a home who tested positive for COVID-19, there were times staff did not see children during virtual or in-person check-ins, it says.

Alberta Children’s services committed to introducing an early identification for children aged zero to six, as well as 16- and 17-year-olds, to let caseworkers and teams know if someone needs extra attention, the report says.

The ministry is also implementing a new casework supervision model that aims to put child safety first, improve decision-making and provide coaching and mentoring to caseworkers, the report says.

Pelton noted Alberta’s child and youth well-being action plan, released at the end of May, focused on how COVID-19 impacted children and youth and listed 10 recommendations to better care for those kids.

“I’m hopeful, but we all need to pay attention because young people shouldn’t be dying at the rates we’re seeing,” Pelton said.

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