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Tragic life of Anaham teen focus of government response

Lost in the Shadows. - Tribune/Advisor graphic
Lost in the Shadows.
— image credit: Tribune/Advisor graphic

Born to a violent mother, she struggled in school with undiagnosed disabilities.

She endured physical and emotional abuse within her home and community.

Just two weeks shy of her 15th birthday, with a mouth full of abscessed teeth and likely the victim of sexual assaults, life proved overwhelming for a First Nations girl from Anaham Reserve.

The painful details of that short, tragic life which ended in suicide three years ago, are the focus of a critical report and a series of resulting government meetings aimed at improving services for First Nations communities.

Lost in the Shadows: How a Lack of Help Meant a Loss of Hope for One First Nations Girl was released in February by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Representative for Children and Youth.

Her 110-page report recounts the girl’s life from birth to death, concluding there was a virtual collapse of government services meant to protect her and children like her.

With up to seven child protection workers theoretically assigned to the area between 2007 and 2011, Turpel-Lafond discovered that in reality there were at most four,  and in 2011 only one in the Cariboo Chilcotin region.

In response to the report findings, the Ministry of Children and Family Development recently indicated in an e-mail it is currently recruiting to fill three vacant full-time social worker positions in the region.

In the meantime, additional senior staff have been brought in to work with staff in the main office in Williams Lake.

Turpel-Lafond’s report paints an acutely painful picture of a child impacted by a mother suffering from a severe mental illness that went mostly untreated, and being raised by her grandparents with little support and few services to help.

Learning challenges meant the girl struggled in school, but she was still passed from one grade to the next and never received a formal assessment while at School District 27, according to Turpel-Lafond, who noted the girl enjoyed wrestling, but often got in trouble at school for violent behaviour towards others.

Turpel-Lafond said the girl was resilient, but suspected that incidences of sexual abuse by a peer and an older member of the community made her life become increasingly difficult to cope with.

Even in death, the child was going unrecognized — a coroner’s report made no recommendations — spurring Turpel-Lafond to write her report, which revealed there were a number of services and supports the girl did not receive during her short life, likely contributing to her suicide.

“One of the major reasons for this (death) was the failure of the professionals involved in her life to recognize and assess the identified cognitive limitations and potentially negative consequences for a child growing up with a parent with an acute mental illness,” Turpel-Lafond said in the days following the release of the explosive report.

Anaham Chief Joe Alphonse, who chose last month to publicly identify his community as being where the girl lived, was present at the first government meeting held in Victoria last week to address the report.

He said everyone holds blame in the tragedy and hopes by talking about it openly, cases such as this won’t happen again.

“It was good to hear Mary Ellen present the report,” Alphonse said. “It draws attention to the real issues we are facing in our community and it’s important the report doesn’t go by the wayside.”

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