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Drugs behind deaths of nine Alberta youth in care: Child and Youth Advocate


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By Angela Amato in Edmonton

The office of Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate has released a report into the deaths of 15 young people in government care and most involved drugs.

Of the deaths that took place between October 2021 and March 2022, nine were a result of confirmed or suspected drug toxicity and 12 were Indigenous youth. Ages ranged from six to 19 years old.

In 2021, the advocate’s office called for the United Conservative Party government to develop a youth-specific opioid and substance use strategy, but it said no progress has been made on that recommendation.

Advocate Terri Pelton said a harm-reduction approach is needed for youth with addictions to get their foot in the door to recovery.

One of the children in the report started using drugs at seven years old.

“If that’s happening at seven, we really need to have substance education in schools,” Pelton said Wednesday.

The report recommends the province address the over-representation of young Indigenous people in government systems. The report notes that understanding the effects of intergenerational trauma when working with Indigenous youth and their families is crucial for care providers to make appropriate decisions.

Pelton said that energy needs to be put into supporting Indigenous communities in providing services to youth.

“Ceremony and family connections have a heightened place in child welfare service delivery,” said Pelton.

The report said one of the dilemmas that caseworkers face is a lack of resources and services when timely decisions need to be made for children in care. This includes proper housing and access to mental health programming. The report also said the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected access to resources that were already strained.

Most of the children in the investigation experienced family violence, parental substance use and unstable living environments. Some of the youths had mental health concerns, substance abuse issues and were not having their basic needs met.

The advocate suggests ministries need to collaborate with community-based partners and Alberta Health Services to expand their resources and address the complex needs of youth in government care.

Pelton has met with mothers of some of the children who say “their children deserved better.”

While some initiatives are being developed, Pelton said immediate action is crucial to address service gaps.

Dan Laville, a spokesman for the provincial children’s services ministry, thanked Pelton for her work and said there is no greater tragedy than the death of a child.

“Children’s Services will work with our partners across government to consider the recommendation for a coordinated action plan to address service gaps for young people with complex needs while longer-term initiatives are still under development,” he said in an email.

“As well, several initiatives continue to be underway that will improve access to mental health and addiction services to help youth and young adults receiving services stay safe.”

Rebecca Schulz left the children’s services portfolio earlier this year to run for the United Conservative leadership. Opposition NDP children’s services critic Rakhi Pancholi said in a release that Schulz’s successor, Matt Jones, has been “ineffective and absent from the job.”

“This distracted government is costing children and young people their lives, and we need someone who is focused on taking these important recommendations seriously,” Pancholi said.

The Child and Youth Advocate investigates the deaths of children in care twice a year. In 2021, 33 deaths were reviewed, which Pelton said is one of the highest since the office began the investigations in 2012.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 28, 2022.

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Alberta premier defends new rules on in-person learning, no mask mandates in schools

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By Dean Bennett and Colette Derworiz

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith is defending new rules ordering schools to provide in-person learning during the current wave of viral illnesses, saying a clear, measured response is crucial for students and parents.

“We need a normal school environment for our children, and we need to make sure that the classrooms stay open to be able to support our parents,” Smith said at a news conference in Medicine Hat on Friday.

“That’s why we made the decision that we did — to give that clear direction.”

Her comments came a day after she announced regulatory changes saying school boards must provide in-person learning. Schools also can’t require students to wear masks in school or be forced to take classes online.

The changes take effect immediately.

“Anyone is welcome to wear a mask if they feel that that is the right choice for them, but we should not be forcing parents to mask their kids, and we shouldn’t be denying education to kids who turn up without a mask,” Smith said.

She has said mask rules and toggling from online to in-person learning adversely affected the mental health, development and education of students during the COVID-19 pandemic and strained parents scrambling to make child-care arrangements when schools shut down.

That’s over, Smith said.

“We’re just not going to normalize these kind of extreme measures every single respiratory virus season,” she said.

School boards have been asking for more direction as a slew of seasonal respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses, along with some COVID-19 cases, have led to high classroom absentee rates and have jammed children’s hospitals.

In Edmonton, Trisha Estabrooks, board chair for Edmonton Public Schools, said the decision provided the clarity that the board was seeking.

“All Albertans now understand that it’s not within the jurisdiction, and nor should it ever have been within the jurisdiction of individual school boards, to make decisions that belong to health officials,” said Estabrooks.

She said the province has made it clear that any future public health order would supersede the new rules.

The in-person learning change applies to grades 1-12 in all school settings, including public, separate, francophone, public charter and independent schools.

The masking change applies to those same grades and schools, but also to early childhood services.

The Opposition NDP criticized the new rules, saying it’s unrealistic to force schools to be all things to all students while also handling a wave of viral illnesses and not providing additional supports to do it.

Jason Schilling, head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said the government needs to work with school boards to figure out how to make this work.

“You have schools that are struggling to staff the building, (they) can’t get substitute teachers, teachers are sick, they’re covering each other’s classes, principals are covering the classes,” Schilling said in an interview.

“And then to say if you go online, you are to still offer the same programming in person — we just don’t have the people to do that.”

Wing Li, communications director for public education advocacy organization, Support our Students, said it will be difficult for schools to offer hybrid learning without any additional resources.

“There are no teachers,” Li said in an interview. “Pivoting online was mostly due to staffing shortages, which is worse now three years in.”

Li said online learning is challenging for students but, when temporary and supported, can keep schools and communities safe from spreading illness.

“This is a quite aggressive use of the Education Act to enshrine an ideology,” she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2022

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Don’t have a cow: Senator’s legen-dairy speech draws metaphor from bovine caper

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OTTAWA — Haven’t you herd? A dramatic tale of 20 escaped cows, nine cowboys and a drone recently unfolded in St-Sévère, Que., and it behooved a Canadian senator to milk it for all it was worth.

Prompting priceless reactions of surprise from her colleagues, Sen. Julie Miville-Dechêne recounted the story of the bovine fugitives in the Senate chamber this week — and attempted to make a moo-ving point about politics.

“Honourable senators, usually, when we do tributes here, it is to recognize the achievements of our fellow citizens,” Miville-Dechêne began in French, having chosen to wear a white blouse with black spots for the occasion.

“However, today, I want to express my amused admiration for a remarkably determined herd of cows.”

On a day when senators paid tribute to a late Alberta pastor, the crash of a luxury steamer off the coast of Newfoundland in 1918 and environmental negotiators at the recent climate talks in Egypt, senators seated near Miville-Dechêne seemed udderly taken aback by the lighter fare — but there are no reports that they had beef with what she was saying.

Miville-Dechêne’s storytelling touched on the highlights of the cows’ evasion of authorities after a summer jailbreak — from their wont to jump fences like deer to a local official’s entreaty that she would not go running after cattle in a dress and high heels.

The climax of her narrative came as nine cowboys — eight on horseback, one with a drone — arrived from the western festival in nearby St-Tite, Que., north of Trois-Rivières, and nearly nabbed the vagabonds before they fled through a cornfield.

“They are still on the run, hiding in the woods by day and grazing by night,” said Miville-Dechêne, with a note of pride and perhaps a hint of fromage. 

She neglected to mention the reported costs of the twilight vandalism, which locals say has cost at least $20,000.

But Miville-Dechêne did save some of her praise for the humans in the story, congratulating the municipal general manager, Marie-Andrée Cadorette, for her “dogged determination,” and commending the would-be wranglers for stepping up when every government department and police force in Quebec said there was nothing they could do. 

“There is a political lesson in there somewhere,” said the former journalist.

Miville-Dechêne ended on what could perhaps be interpreted as a butchered metaphor about non-partisanship: “Finally, I would like to confess my unbridled admiration for these cows that have found freedom and are still out there, frolicking about. While we overcomplicate things, these cows are learning to jump fences.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.

Marie-Danielle Smith, The Canadian Press

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