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BC child and youth watchdog criticizes unstable child services

The Ministry of Children and Family Development is not doing a good job of stabilizing the lives of children in the ministry's care, and it's leading kids to self-harm and even suicide. That's the emphasis of a report issued by the Representative For Children and Youth this morning that analyzed the suicides of 15 kids and instances of self-harm of another 74 from 2008 to 2010.

Trauma, Turmoil and Tragedy: Understanding the Needs of Children and Youth at Risk of Suicide and Self-Harm is the Representative For Children and Youth (RCY) Office's second aggregate review of ministry data on child deaths and injuries as required by The Hughes Report, the first being on deaths of children in care under two years of age.

Although each child's case was different, there were common themes: unstable foster home situations that led to 776 moves in total for 56 of the children; histories of abuse, neglect, and domestic violence in the family; lack of comprehensive treatment for mental health issues; problems at school; and romantic troubles within 24-hours of the self-harm or suicide.

"The planning for children in care was not adequate, and we're seeing, either because of the absence of more therapeutic caregivers (or) meaningful plans to meet their mental health issues, we're seeing some very dramatic circumstances where kids are just not having their needs met," Turpel-Lafond told The Tyee.

Like the children in care system overall, Turpel Lafond found an overrepresentation of Aboriginal children among those who self-harmed: eight of 15 the children who committed suicide and 44 of the children who self-harmed identified as Aboriginal.

Delegated Aboriginal agencies, authorized through agreements between the government and First Nations provide child and family services to Aboriginal populations were only providing services to 38 per cent of the Aboriginal children in this review. Less than half of the Aboriginal children were living in Aboriginal placements, although the ministry is aiming to increase the number of placements in Aboriginal homes to 61.5 per cent by 2014/15.

But improving mental health services for children and youth was the only recommendation Turpel LaFond included in the report.

"The child's experience is one of re-traumatizing kids who are already challenged, and for whom we need to help," she says.

MCFD Minister Stephanie Cadieux addressed the media during a conference call this afternoon, saying she appreciates the work Turpel-Lafond has done on the report and accepts her recommendation. She says much of the problems outlined in the report are already on the ministry's radar, but have nothing to do with issues with their Integrated Case Management system.

"We're currently developing a two-year action plan that will review and strengthen our child and youth mental health services, and that includes collaborating with stakeholders in Aboriginal communities to improve our Aboriginal child and youth mental health services," she says.

Stability for children in care was also a common theme that came up at MCFD's recent review of children in care. This involved consulting with 600 stakeholders, including MCFD and contracted organization staff, foster parents, Aboriginal Delegated Agencies, and youth in care.

"As a result of all of that work, we're putting extra focus on creating more stability and permanency, and as recommended by the representative, we're implementing a process to review and take action on any child that's in care that is moving more than three times in a 12 month period," says Minister Cadieux.

Training for dealing with victims of trauma is another ministry focus, specifically for foster parents to create a stronger connection and sense of understanding when they foster traumatized children.

The problem could be bigger than even the report reveals, however. Turpel-Lafond has criticized MCFD in the past for not reporting injuries and deaths of children in their care. She says reporting has since improved, but believes the list of suicides and injuries in this report is modest compared to the actual numbers.

"It was hard to go back and find ones that they maybe didn't report to us," she told The Tyee.

"We really don't have very reliable data on that point, which is a problem. All I can say is that for the cohort we look at here, we could have made interventions in many of these cases."

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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