Alberta on track to report a record-breaking number of deaths among those under child intervention, supports

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Alberta is on track to report a record-breaking number of deaths among children and youth receiving child welfare services or supports this year, and has begun moving young adults off a financial aid program sooner.

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Numbers released by Children’s Services this week show that 30 children, youth or young adults receiving intervention or supports died between April 1 and Oct. 31 . With four more deaths among youth receiving services reported this month , there have been a total of 34 this year, matching the number of total deaths in 12 months last year.

Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz told reporters in the legislature Wednesday she’s directed the ministry to conduct a review of policies and practices, but that it’s too soon to draw conclusions from the statistics.

“I am absolutely committed to looking at this data and making changes where they’re needed in the best interests of children,” said Schulz.

Schulz confirmed the government has moved forward on a long-planned change to lower eligibility by two years to a maximum of 22 years old from 24 under the Support and Financial Assistance Agreement (SFAA). She said “the vast majority” of SFAA recipients who are no longer eligible have been moved into other adult services or are being moved out of SFAA.

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“We’ve been very clear that for any young adults who cannot transition off this program, they will continue to receive services,” said Schulz.

While there may be more than 450 people impacted by the change in policy, Schulz’s press secretary Rebecca Polack said in a Wednesday evening email as of Nov. 1, 154 people between the ages of 21 and 24 had been shuffled from the program. Of those, she said 90 per cent, or about 139 people, went on to employment or other government support programs such as Advancing Futures, Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, Persons with Developmental Disabilities, income support, or a combination of adult services.

The latest statistics led the Opposition NDP to demand the UCP government take immediate action, including re-establishing an all-party panel to urgently find solutions, and reinstating supports and benefits for those up to age 24 under the SFAA.

In 2020, a court injunction prevented the government from moving ahead with changing SFAA eligibility, but that was lifted in January. Schulz has previously said the government would delay the transition during the pandemic.

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NDP children’s services critic Rakhi Pancholi told reporters the government has failed children and young adults receiving government care and supports.

“This is heartbreaking. It is the highest number of deaths of children and young people receiving child intervention services at this point in the year as far back as reporting goes,” said Pancholi.

Pancholi said SFAA supports to vulnerable young Albertans should not be cut off regardless of whether the province is still in the midst of the pandemic, and the fact that 16 young adults transitioning out of the program over the age of 18 have died so far this year shows the devastating effect.

Schulz estimated 22 cases are still being investigated to determine the manner of death, and the ministry needs more information to make any policy changes while working to ensure young adults have the supports they need.

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This year to date, 13 of those who died were under the age of 12, five were teenagers between 13 and 17, and the majority – at least 23 deaths before Oct. 31 – were among Indigenous children and youth.

Pancholi called the government’s policy approach an “unforgivable” attack on the financial and emotional security of vulnerable young Albertans. She added recommendations are still outstanding from a Ministerial Panel on Child Intervention struck in 2017. The panel delivered 26 recommendations in March, 2018.

“Something isn’t working, whether the work is not being implemented, or it’s not achieving the objectives that it meant to – that needs to be reassessed as well,” said Pancholi.

Schulz said all but one of the panel’s recommendations have been implemented or work is underway to put them into effect.

In a September report, the province’s child advocate flagged several issues, including the need for early intervention and filling service gaps for Indigenous people, transition planning for adolescents aging out of care, and a greater sense of urgency in addressing the opioid crisis.

lijohnson@postmedia.com

twitter.com/reportrix

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