11/15/2012 02:09 EST | Updated 01/15/2013 05:12 EST

B.C. youth suicide report calls for better government trauma care

VICTORIA - British Columbia's government must do more for young people at risk of suicide other than provide them with warm beds in the homes of well-meaning, but overwhelmed foster parents, says a report released by the province's independent children's representative.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Thursday the government is spending too much time shuffling suicidal young people from foster home to foster home rather than trying to understand their traumatic lives and offering them the care they need.

Her 61-page report, "Trauma, Turmoil and Tragedy: understanding the needs of children and youth at risk of suicide and self-harm," recommends the Children and Family Development Ministry build stability in the lives of these young people through strategies that limit the number of disruptions they experience in government care.

"We've got to calm the system down," said Turpel-Lafond in an interview. "The ministry is going to have to show much better service to some of these most vulnerable kids."

Turpel-Lafond's report examined the lives of 15 young people who committed suicide and another 74 who caused themselves self-inflicted injuries.

Of the 89 cases of young people reviewed, 58 were in the care of children's ministry at the time of their suicide or attempted suicide.

Turpel-Lafond's report said those 58 youth were moved 776 times while in government care and five of the young people were moved more than 30 times each.

"The idea that you can have a room in your house and have a foster child living with you where you get up and go to work and they get up and go to school just like the other child in the next bedroom, and you get paid a quantum a month to take care of the child and give them food and shelter is not going to work for these kids," she said.

"They need someone attaching, helping them recover from what they've been through," said Turpel-Lafond.

Her report said that the daily challenges in the lives of the vulnerable youth are foreign to most British Columbians. It stated the repeated heartbreak the youth have dealt with requires a compassionate response and supportive and effective services.

But even though most of the youth have a lengthy history of troubling behaviour and an overall lack of safety and stability in their lives, there were few attempts to address the adverse and persistence factors impacting their lives, said the report.

The report highlights a case study of an aboriginal male who hanged himself.

It stated the youth lived in a home where his parents struggled with substance abuse and domestic violence was an issue. There were concerns about possible sexual abuse of the youth by a relative.

The report said the youth was removed from the family home seven times by government officials and involved in 19 child protection reports. It said the boy always ended up being returned to his home and following his death a children's ministry report did not assess or recognize the emotional impact the turmoil in the boy's home may played in his life.

"These kids, it's just absolutely tragic," said Turpel-Lafond. "They turn to drugs and alcohol because they are not getting therapeutic support. When they do turn to drugs and alcohol that compounds, often, their mental health challenges and they get more depressed. They get sexually assaulted. They're overdosing."

Of the 15 suicides, nine were females, six were males. Of the nine females, six were aboriginal, of the six males, two were aboriginal.

Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux said the government accepts Turpel-Lafond's recommendation of providing more stability in the lives of young people at suicide risk.

She said a ministry action plan, which has been under development for the past two years, will be instituted in the new year. Cadieux said the plan includes offering more professional care for suicidal youth and better training for foster parents.

She said the plan aims to prevent multiple transfers of youth the foster homes, triggering an alert if a young person is moved three times within the same year.

"We're putting a very strong focus on creating more stability and permanency and as recommended by the representative we're implementing a process to review and take action on any child in care that's moving more than three times in a 12-month period," said Cadieux.

Turpel-Lafond's report said the government's youth suicide plan must include thorough assessments of children when they are taken into care and include plans for services to help them recover from that trauma.