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A former government-run group home in Abbotsford, B.C., is seen in 2020, a few months after Cree teenager Traevon Chalifoux-Desjarlais died there.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The number of critical injuries sustained by children and youth while in government care in British Columbia jumped by 18 per cent in the first full year of the pandemic, according to data provided by the province’s Representative for Children and Youth.

The representative’s office defines a critical injury as one that could result in a child’s death or cause serious long-term impairment of their health. The total number of such injuries was 1,064 between April 1, 2020 and March 31, 2021, an increase of 164 compared to the previous year, the data show. There are currently 5,259 children in B.C.’s child-welfare system.

The number of deaths of youth in care in the year leading up to March 31, 2021 was 13, three fewer than in the previous year.

In the data, the injuries are divided into six broad categories: emotional harm, sexualized violence, suicide attempts and ideation, physical harm, substance-related harm, and physical assault. The data do not include detailed explanations of the types of injuries or their causes.

Asked what might have been responsible for the spike, Jennifer Charlesworth, the Representative for Children and Youth, said possible reasons include the effect of the pandemic, the toxic drugs crisis, housing instability and better reporting of incidents by B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The ministry said in a statement that the provincial government is committed to finding ways to prevent and reduce critical injuries among children and youth both within and outside government care – though the statement did not elaborate on how that work is being done. The ministry, like Ms. Charlesworth, suggested the rate of injuries may have jumped in part because of better reporting.

The total number of children injured could be less than the total number of injuries, because multiple injuries suffered by a single child would be counted multiple times, according to Ms. Charlesworth’s office.

Among the fatalities in 2020 was Traevon Desjarlais-Chalifoux, a Cree 17-year-old whose death by suicide in an Abbotsford group home in September of that year was the subject of a recent Globe and Mail investigation. The Globe has learned Traevon had attempted suicide once before while in care.

It is not clear how many of the deaths and injuries over the past two years occurred in group homes like Traevon’s – as opposed to in foster care or other settings where children and youth who can no longer live with their families might be placed – because the B.C. government does not release injury data that is broken down by placement type.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who served as B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth until 2016 and is now a law professor at the University of British Columbia, said she has seen recent injury data broken down by placement type and is disturbed that the ministry is not making the figures available to the public – particularly to Indigenous leadership, because Indigenous youth are disproportionately likely to find themselves in government care. Without citing specific numbers, she said the data show that a large number of injuries and deaths are occurring in group homes, such as the one where Traevon died.

The data show the number of incidents of suicide, attempted suicide and self-harm in group homes is “disproportionately high,” and that these incidents have become more common in the two years since the pandemic began, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said. By not releasing the data, she said, the province is whitewashing the problem.

In April, the B.C. government announced an inquest into Traevon’s death. As part of that process, a jury may make recommendations for preventing future suicides in government care.

But Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said the B.C. government should already know what it needs to do in order to solve problems with the way it operates and oversees group homes.

“All the times we choose not to act, we set the stage for these types of horrendous losses,” she said.

Bernard Richard, who was B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth until 2018, argued that there is a major structural flaw in the way governments allocate resources to public care for young people. They spend “the most money on the least effective responses – institutional and group homes – and the least money on the most effective ones: foster and therapeutic care,” he said.

The number of children in care in B.C. has been declining for the past several years, but the number of Indigenous children in the system has not kept pace with that decline. They now represent 67 per cent of children and youth in care, a five-percentage-point increase compared to five years ago. Just 6 per cent of British Columbians are Indigenous.

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