Alberta child advocate calls for ‘urgent response’ to prevent young adult deaths

The latest report from Alberta’s child advocate reignited calls Monday to reverse a controversial rollback to the cutoff age for a program that helps young adults transition out of the child intervention system.

Del Graff’s report examines the “profound and tragic” deaths of six young people in 2018 who were transitioning out of government care into adulthood at the time. 

The report comes one month after the Alberta government announced its decision to roll back the current cutoff age for the program known as Support and Financial Assistance Agreements (SFAAs). As of April 2020, post-intervention supports will end at age 22, previously 24.

NDP Children’s Services critic Rakhi Pancholi called on the government to reverse the decision.

“You have to remember these are young people who have grown up in care. They don’t have family supports. They don’t have the people there to help them transition at a critical time,” Pancholi said Monday.

Pancholi highlighted two deaths reported last week on the Government of Alberta’s website —  a 23-year-old on Nov. 20 and a 20-year-old on Nov. 17 — who were both receiving government services. 

“We believe that this speaks to the vulnerability of the young people who are transitioning out of care and into adulthood, that they need significant supports to help that transition be successful,” she said.

One of the youth in Graff’s report, referred to as Ian, had a good sense of humour and enjoyed video games and playing guitar. At 14, he was placed in care when his great-grandmother could no longer care for him due to dementia. 

After Ian turned 18, his mental health declined. He became suicidal and was often homeless. Ian killed himself two months before his 23rd birthday.

He is one of six young Albertans in Graff’s report, identified only by pseudonyms, who died last year after aging out of Children’s Services care.

According to the report, two died by suicide, two in car accidents, one from fentanyl poisoning and one from a suspected drug overdose.

Graff investigated the deaths, which happened over a nine-month period, while preparing the 54-page report on young adults who had received SFAAs.

Graff’s report and its recommendations were written in advance of the government rollback but he addressed the issue in an interview Monday. 

“We have concerns about the speed at which young people are going to have to make these changes in their lives,” said Graff, adding that his office played a key role in moving the age up to 24 in 2014.

For 18 to 24 year-olds, Graff said it’s an emerging time of adulthood and development that requires skills these youth may not have developed growing up in care. 

“We’d urge [the government] to find ways to support this population until they’re 24,” Graff said.

185 complaints

Over the same nine-month period, 102 young people contacted the child and youth advocate’s office with 185 issues related to their SFAAs. These agreements are meant to help young people transition out of the child intervention system. 

Their difficulties were similar to those of the six individuals who died, Graff wrote.

“These ongoing, widespread issues with SFAAs tell us that an urgent response is needed,” Graff wrote. “More needs to be done to help young people who have gone through the system as they enter adulthood.”

The most common issues were:

  • inadequate supports and services;
  • financial supports being reduced or denied;
  • concerns with caseworker relationships;
  • SFAAs closed;
  • issues with housing; 
  • and denied health-care and mental health supports. 

Graff makes three recommendations for Children’s Services to help prevent future tragedies.

  • Improve guidelines and provide training and time for staff to support young people ages 18 to 24;
  • Clearly outline supports and services the young adults are entitled to receive and connect young people to adult services before their support agreements are terminated; and
  • Provide young adults with access to adequate and safe housing. 

“We agree with the intent of those recommendations,” said Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz.

She said her department would meet with Graff to go over what the change would look like but defended the decision to roll back the cutoff age to 22.

“Ultimately what we did see in our data as that around the age of 22 … there was a natural drop-off in terms of the young adults who were choosing to use that program,” Schulz said.

Former SFAA recipient Jasmine Nepoose aged out last month. Without the support, she questioned how she would have been able to live on her own, raise her four-year-old and study esthetics; but now she feels ready.

“Without their support I don’t know if I would have been able to make it there without them,” Nepoose said. “Because I’ve had the support since I was 18, they’ve prepared me for this and they’ve prepared me for me transitioning out on my own to be an independent young adult. With that I’m confident with myself and where I’m at.’

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