Confusion and discord between child welfare authorities in British Columbia and Alberta failed a boy who’d suffered sexual and physical abuse during a chaotic life before his death at age 17 from a fentanyl overdose, the children’s watchdog in B.C. says.
Jennifer Charlesworth issued a report Tuesday, saying ineffective oversight despite an interprovincial policy involving services for children and youth led to the “compassionate” boy’s death.
Her report points to the need for improvements nationally to protect vulnerable kids who move between provinces and territories.
Charlesworth said the boy, given the pseudonym Romain, was born in Alberta and moved to B.C. at age 13 and placed with his eldest sister but Alberta didn’t notify B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development or formally request help until two months after his arrival.
She called the first of a string of miscommunications and “dropped hand-offs” between the two provinces in the case involving Romain, who was shuffled from group homes to treatment centres.
Overall, he’d been moved over 40 times.
At age 11, Romain told social workers he felt as though he’d been “passed around for 20 million years,” the report says of the boy who loved comic books and superheroes but had complex psychological needs that could not be met by a family that loved him and was never properly supported to care for him.
Romain began using substances at age 10 and died in May 2017 while living in an emergency home in B.C., her report says.
He overdosed after he was the suspected victim of sexual assault by another resident following warnings by staff to the Children’s Ministry that he was at risk due to the resident’s history, the report says.
He was also sexually assaulted in Alberta at age 13 before being moved to B.C., it says, adding another teen was convicted in 2014.
Alberta’s Children’s Services informally offered to develop a specialized resource for Romain but that arrangement was never formalized because the Alberta and B.C. ministries didn’t communicate or work together well enough to develop an appropriate resource, Charlesworth said.
British Columbia had not taken any action to provide the teen with the resources he needed for multiple psychiatric disorders before he became suicidal and violent, then spent significant time in B.C.’s youth justice system, she said.
“It’s beyond my office’s scope to make findings about the role of Alberta’s Children’s Services in Romain’s life and death but I recognize, and anybody who reads this report will too, that Alberta shares responsibility for his tragic life and outcome,” she said during a conference call with reporters.
The report makes six recommendations, saying the top priority is the need for B.C.’s children’s ministry to take a leadership role to improve the interprovincial protocol that is supposed to ensure children and youth moving between provinces and territories receive timely and appropriate care.
The policy is up for review in 2021 by provincial and territorial directors of child welfare.
Charlesworth said about 100 children and youth from British Columbia are placed in government care elsewhere in the country and about as many are moved to the province from other jurisdictions at any given time.
Katrina Conroy, the children’s minister in B.C., said the province will follow a recommendation in the report by hiring an interprovincial co-ordinator to oversee the care of children.
“We really need to ensure that kids like Romain who have complicated, really substantial needs are getting the services they need, and we have to ensure that we’re doing that here in B.C.,” Conroy said.
Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schultz said in a statement from Alberta that the report is “very troubling” and that she has asked her ministry to look into Romain’s death.
“I do believe important shifts are occurring in policy and practice here in Alberta as a result of the ministerial panel on child intervention,” she said about a one-year review of the province’s child services in 2017.
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