Jennifer Charlesworth is B.C.’s third Representative for Children and Youth. (InWithForward)

Child watchdog blames Alberta, B.C. for lack of coordination before teen’s overdose death

Jennifer Charlesworth, the Representative for Children and Youth, calls out lack of oversight

B.C.’s child watchdog has released a scathing report highlighting miscommunication and ineffective oversight between Alberta and B.C.’s child welfare agencies which it says led to a chaotic life for a teenager that ended when he overdosed on fentanyl.

Jennifer Charlesworth, the Representative for Children and Youth, recommended Tuesday that the B.C. government create a dedicated position to oversee children in its care when they move across provinces.

The recommendation is one of a handful released in Charlesworth’s latest report, “Caught in the Middle,” which investigated the short life of a “compassionate” teen who overdosed while staying in a B.C. emergency residence in 2017.

The teen, given the pseudonym of Romain in the report, was born in Edmonton in June 2000, and was placed on the Alberta government’s radar in 2006 after a probe into allegations of physical abuse by his father. Romain spent the next three years moving between Belize and Alberta with his father and grandmother, before moving back in with his mother in 2009.

READ MORE: Indigenous children still being treated unequally by provinces, says advocate

Romain, who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression and oppositional defiant disorder, suffered from suicidal ideation but was not placed in government care, despite his mother’s requests.

In July 2011, at the age of 11, he was finally placed in care after his mother dropped him off at an Alberta Child Services office and told staff she could no longer care for him.

Romain told case workers he felt “cracked like an eggshell … passed around for 20 million years,” the report reads.

During the next several years, the boy struggled with behavioural outbursts and aggressive and violent behaviour towards staff and himself. He was placed in residential homes and treatment centres, and was in and out of his mother’s home. During this time, the report says, he was sexually assaulted by a male youth from one of the homes, and physically assaulted after he reported it to police.

In all, Romain was moved at least eight times between parents and countries prior to the age of 10, and he was moved approximately 12 times during the two years he spent in the Alberta care system from ages 11 to 13.

In October 2013, he was sent to live with his older sister in B.C., although watchdog investigators remain unsure as to why or how it was done.

Alberta Child Services did not provide any formal support to Romain’s sister, then 26 years old, according to the report. Communication between the teen’s case worker in Alberta and the B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Families was minimal until a few months after he moved to B.C.

In February, following escalating behaviour problems, Romain was sent back to Alberta after B.C. authorities determined there were “no resources to accommodate” him.

The teen was taken, in handcuffs, back to the same co-residence facility where he had been sexually assaulted, despite promises to the contrary by his case worker.

Percentage of provinces and territories which have sending and receiving Interprovincial Agreements with B.C.

A lack of stability in Romain’s living conditions continued for the next four years, while he dealt with substance use issues and struggled with low self-worth and threats of suicide. He would move between provinces twice more.

In early 2017, the now 17-year-old was placed in another B.C. government facility, a two-bedroom home shared with another boy who had a history of sexual intrusion with other residents, the report reads. Romain was sexually assaulted by the youth while incoherent and under the influence of unknown substances.

He died of an accidental fentanyl overdose that May.

B.C. and Alberta’s deal included ‘dropped handoffs’

Romain’s case illustrates what can happen when children in government care are moved between provinces and territories, the report reads, despite an established protocol designed to make such a transition “seamless.”

Respective child service agencies are supposed to agree to an interprovincial plan, complete with information from case workers, updates as the youth ages while in care, and funding agreements between the governments.

An internal review by the B.C. ministry later found that Romain’s case worker failed to meet with him monthly, as required. None of the serious incidents in B.C. was reported to his Alberta case worker. He also did not receive a specialized placement despite available funding.

Charlesworth said the investigation found “a link between the inadequate services provided to Romain in B.C. and his death by overdose,” specifically the shortcomings in following protocols, a lack of oversight within the province, and a need for more training among the children’s ministry staff.

READ MORE: B.C. youth agency closes after staff member gave teen drugs

She said she cannot make recommendations for Alberta, but B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development failed to provide Romain with the resources he needed for his various psychiatric disorders, due to “a string of miscommunications and dropped handoffs between the two privinces.”

The report also called on the ministry to take a leadership role in improving the interprovincial policy – a move that the minister in charge, Katrine Conroy, accepts.

“Interprovincial cases are admittedly complex,” Conroy said following the release of the report. “They involve rare practice for our staff who seldom, if ever, deal with this type of scenario. At any given time, there are roughly 100 such children and youth throughout the province.

“This means that staff on the ground were handling a challenging, multi-dimensional case that required co-ordination between service providers in both jurisdictions.”

She said the government has already funded a dedicated coordinator to rigorously monitor all cases that involve both provinces.


@ashwadhwani
ashley.wadhwani@bpdigital.ca

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