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Suicide victim 'fell through the cracks:' chief coroner
Recommendations call for improved child welfare services

Katie May
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 7, 2011

SOMBA K'E/YELLOWKNIFE - The suicide of a teenage girl in Lutsel K'e might have been prevented if social services in the Northwest Territories were improved, according to the NWT's chief coroner.

In her Feb. 1 report on the 2009 death of a 14-year-old girl, chief coroner Cathy Menard recommended the Department of Health and Social Services follow through with proposed changes to the territory's Child and Family Services Act.

The department completed a review of the Act in October, calling for a variety of changes including an increased focus on prevention, parent support and drug and alcohol treatment so children don't have to be sent away from their families. Health Minister Sandy Lee tabled the response to the review in the legislative assembly Feb. 4.

"It is my hope that it will be completely implemented and we will see positive changes to social services over the next few years," Menard said. "We thought we could tell the girl's story, and maybe by recommending that we support these changes, hopefully it will make a difference in somebody else's life."

The girl took her own life on July 22, 2009 after being shuffled from foster care to living with relatives in Behchoko and then back with her family in Lutsel K'e in a home that was known as a "party house" in the community. At 14 years old, the girl had several run-ins with police - twice they found her publicly intoxicated and once she reported she was a victim of sexual assault. According to the coroner's report, her family had struggled with substance abuse and the girl had experienced chronic neglect and domestic violence as a young child before she was taken into foster care, where she stayed until 2001.

In 2008, when the girl was living with family, not going to school and largely responsible for looking after her younger siblings, social services officials received several reports about concerns for the family and their children's wellbeing, but the coroner's investigation notes these concerns were met with "minimal follow-up."

She was one of two NWT teenagers to commit suicide in 2009, out of seven total suicides that year. The coroner's office has so far confirmed seven suicides took place in the NWT during 2010.

"In (her) case, she definitely appears as if she's gone through the cracks. But there's a lot of cases out there we don't even know about," Menard said.

"A suicide is always very difficult and leaves so many unanswered questions for family and everybody around them, so it is a difficult thing. But we don't see a lot of young people committing suicide in circumstances similar to this, so that's a good thing."

Community members in Lutsel K'e contacted by News/North declined to comment on the situation.

The report on the NWT's Child and Family Services Act was finished after a committee of MLAs and social workers visited Edmonton to study Alberta's delivery of its child welfare services, followed by visits to 10 NWT communities to hear residents' concerns. From those meetings and confidential interviews the committee issued eight key recommendations that would overhaul the Act, including extending services to youth in foster care up to age 23, making addictions treatment accessible in every community, and developing an anti-poverty strategy to help strengthen the family unit.

While the Department of Health and Social Services awaited the legislative assembly's response to the report Friday morning, the department issued a statement to say the coroner's office should have done the same.

"The coroner's recommendations were made in absence of the full understanding of the existing legislative and program framework," the department's position read.

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