Del Graff was appointed as Alberta’s sixth Child and Youth Advocate in 2011. Created in 1989 to report to the Minister of Human Services, the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (OCYA) became an independent office of the Legislative Assembly in 2012. The OCYA, with some 60 staff, advocates for young people in the child intervention and youth justice systems. Among other duties it investigates the serious injury or death of children in foster care. From 2012 to 2017 the OCYA investigated 216 deaths of children and youth that were in or had recent involvement with Alberta’s child intervention system. Twenty-five of the 35 youth who died by suicide in that time were Indigenous. For more information on getting help for vulnerable children and youth in care, including access to legal representation, see ocya.alberta.ca.
AV: You were appointed Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate in 2011 and the next year the office became independent. What’s the importance of independence for your work?
Independence provides us with an opportunity to serve young people without the approval or interference of the government of the day. It allows us to speak publicly about issues that are important for children and youth. It enables us to have a different level of credibility—when the public hear from us they recognize that we’re not speaking on behalf of government, we’re speaking on behalf of young people, which is what our legislation intends that we do.
AV: Your mandate expanded on April 1, 2018. What is your mandate now?
Since we first became independent there have been a series of expansions regarding our mandate. One of the key ones—which started in 2012 but has evolved since then—is a responsibility for providing reviews of the children who pass away while they’re in government care or while they’re in the custody of youth offender centres. In 2014 an expansion to a broader population included young people who had died within two years of being involved with the child intervention system. And then in April 2018 the big change, with respect to those investigative reviews, was we became responsible for doing reviews of all children who die while they were involved with government care. So that means that we have to look beyond systemic issues into other issues as well and do mandatory reviews of every child who’s in care when they die.
AV: Are there main themes that you’ve identified in those reviews?
One of the themes we identified is there are these young people who have tragic outcomes in their lives, who are in circumstances where they are in the midst of transitions—leaving government care and returning to their home, or between placements in government care, or leaving government care and moving on to independence. Those transitions are times of higher stress and higher concern in terms of the safety of young people.
AV: In a 2016 report, “Voices for Change,” you noted an “over-representation of Indigenous children and youth in our child intervention system.” Can you elaborate on that?
Indigenous young people make up less than 10 per cent of the Alberta population of young people and yet they account for 70 per cent of the kids in care. That’s a huge over-representation. We recognize there’s a history in this country of adverse impacts from government intervention for Indigenous children and their families, communities and nations. The colonization of Indigenous people for 150 years, the residential schools and the way children were treated over generations—children who went to residential school didn’t have the model of parents and grandparents to help them to understand what parenting was all about. And then they’re out of residential school, they become parents themselves, and they repeat a cycle that has just been devastating for Indigenous people. And the complexities of that, of poverty and neglect for indigenous communities, all contribute to an over-representation [which] in Alberta is among the highest in the country.
AV: In 2016 you drew attention to the Indigenous youth suicide crisis and called for a province-wide suicide prevention strategy. Has there been action on that?
You’d want to talk to the government of Alberta about that, particularly the minister of Children’s Services, but as I understand it there has been work done… Alberta is one of only a few provinces that doesn’t have a strategy; it’s quite troubling—at one point Alberta was one of the leaders in the world with respect to suicide prevention programming, and over the years that has deteriorated so there isn’t even a provincial strategy in place that’s functioning. To clarify: What we [the OCYA] do when we make recommendations is provide the government with a six-month window to start to take action and then say “What have you done?” And they provide us with updates. We put those onto our website… Our recommendations aren’t binding, and for legislative offices, mine in particular, that can be a challenge when we want to have fast action to serve the young people in this province.
AV: But you do identify gaps. In the investigation into the youth you called “Jimmy,” who died by suicide, you said “there are no provincial child intervention policies that recognize the vulnerabilities of at risk adolescence.” That’s a big gap.
There are big gaps in the system and part of our role is to advise government on those gaps, where they are and what we think needs to be addressed… How they address them is [government’s responsibility]. What we do is we hear through our investigations, our discussions with young people, and our individual advocacy—where we serve somewhere around 2,500 young people a year—about what needs to change… We hear from young people every day about the struggles they face. Sometimes those struggles are about not having their voice heard, not being included in planning, unplanned moves happening to them without their input. There are all kinds of different areas of struggle that we hear on a day-to-day basis from individual young people.
AV: In 2017 your office wrote a special report on LGBTQ2S+ youth. Why did you write it and what did you find?
We were hearing, through young people that we saw through individual advocacy but also through their allies, [about] issues related to young people who are sexually and gender diverse not having their needs met through the child intervention system or through youth justice. We found that significant challenges faced this population with respect to identity and to having reasonable places to live that were safe. Not just physically safe but emotionally, mentally and spiritually safe—they lack access to service in a significant way. We saw consistent themes regardless of who we spoke to and that resulted in a report. Since we released that report we’ve been going to communities [where] we bring decision-makers and community agencies that support sexually and gender-diverse young people, and those young people themselves, to tables to say: “Have a dialogue about this. We want to know what your thoughts are. We want you to be able to influence those decision-makers directly and for them to hear the stories of what it’s like to not feel safe and what the implications are when you’re treated in a way that is not reflective of who you are.” That makes decision-makers more aware than I could ever accomplish.
AV: You’ve investigated many tragic stories. But you also praise the work of child intervention workers, “which the public never hears about.” What should the public hear about?
It is one of the challenges with respect to child welfare social work—how do you make it so people understand that the tragedies we are able to bring to the public’s attention through media are by far the exception? Every day in this province thousands of children are being effectively served by the child welfare system without those kinds of incidents happening… There are people who strive to keep children connected to their families and their communities and we need to acknowledge that as well as acknowledge the tragedies otherwise we don’t have a sense of balance.
AV: Is there anything you’d like the public to pay more attention to?
I want the public to recognize that the systems in place to serve vulnerable people are accountable to the public. The welfare of our children is everybody’s issue and I want people to recognize that the rights of children in this province are paramount. I hope the public takes an interest in vulnerable children more so than is the case today. Our public awareness outreach is an attempt to do that, to make it so the public has a greater interest in what happens for vulnerable young people. When that happens the circumstances for those children can’t help but improve… You can think about your own history and say “Who influenced me when I was a child?” For most people it’s parents and extended family, but there are always those teachers, coaches, individuals that took an interest—who cared—that make a positive difference. For vulnerable children it’s the same. They need to have people who take an interest.
Interviewed by Tadzio Richards.