Creating hope no easy task when children in care keep dying anonymous deaths

May 24, 2018

Paula Simons: Creating hope no easy task when children in care keep dying anonymous deaths

“When it’s about Aboriginal children, people don’t show up. Why should they care? It’s just another statistic.” 


Published on: May 23, 2018 | Last Updated: May 23, 2018 10:25 AM MDT



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On a sunny May Friday, a few dozen people gathered at the Edmonton Intercultural Centre in the gym of the old Macauley School on 95 Street for the 11th annual Blanket of Remembrance ceremony. It’s a day to remember Aboriginal children who have died in Alberta’s child welfare system. 

The back wall of the gymnasium is decorated with the cut-out photos of tiny little red mukluks. There are more than 700 pairs of boots to represent children who have died in care or while receiving protective services from the province.

In 2014, the Edmonton Journal shamed the Tory government into revealing that 741 children and youth, clients of the child welfare system, died between 1999 and 2013.

Since then, another 140 have died.

There have been 33 deaths in the last fiscal year alone, plus another two in April.

The Notley government, like the Prentice government before it, doesn’t release the names of the lost, nor their causes of death.

But only 14 of those 140 deaths  — 10 per cent — have been ruled by the chief medical examiner’s office as due to natural causes.  

And of the 246 child welfare clients who’ve died in the last 10 years, 55 per cent were Indigenous.

However you count it, in this gym the dead far outnumber the number of living who are in attendance. 

It’s a small group here today. Some social workers and academics. A larger group of Indigenous social work students. Some parents and grandparents who’ve had children taken into care. A few who’ve won their children back.

There’s no representative of the NDP government. The only politician here at all is Dave Hanson, the United Conservative Party MLA for Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills.

Bernadette Iahtail, the executive director of the Creating Hope Society, which hosts this event, doesn’t hide her frustration. Every year, more or less the same people attend. She’s come to a decision. This will be the last Blanket of Remembrance ceremony. 

“When it’s about Aboriginal children, people don’t show up. Why should they care? It’s just another statistic.” 

This year’s Blanket of Remembrance Day is dedicated to Serenity, the four-year-old Cree child who died in 2014 after suffering from profound malnutrition, deep hypothermia, and a fractured skull. The husband and wife who were given guardianship of Serenity by the province were charged last October with failing to provide the necessaries of life. 

Serenity’s mother is here today. So too is her father. 

Serenity’s mom has given many interviews in the last two years, but this kind of public speaking is new. She talks about how she lost custody of her children, how she tried to win them back, how she had to sign the forms that allowed her brain-dead child to be taken off life support.

“I was on my knees at the end of her bed, weak and numb. I could not watch her pass away,” she tells the audience.

“I have been held accountable for my choices and my mistakes. And I will pay for them for the rest of my life.” 

Next, Serenity’s father takes the podium. It’s the first time he’s ever spoken publicly about his daughter. He tells the audience he’s spent 11-1/2 years of his life in jail. He watched Serenity grow up via images on his cellphone. He was incarcerated at the time of her death. He wasn’t allowed out to attend her funeral.

“I was kind of a bad person growing up. I was selfish and cruel. I chose being a drug dealer over being a father,” he said.

Every father, he said, makes a promise to his daughter that he will protect her. It was a promise he didn’t keep.

“To this day, I blame myself for what happened to my daughter,” he said.

“I did a lot of things in my life that I regret. People have called me a monster. I’ve been a very bad person. But I’ll never forget my daughter. My daughter was my life.”

(His problems with the law continued Monday when police issued an arrest warrant for Serenity’s father, saying he is considered armed and dangerous after a woman known to him was allegedly attacked Sunday.)

It suddenly occurs to me that of all the people who failed Serenity, in life and in death, her wounded parents are the only ones who’ve admitted any personal responsibility for her fate. 

The irony is bleak. Children die and die and die. At intermittent intervals, inquiries and panels and committees are convened. Reports are written and tabled and ignored. No wonder Iahtail of the Creating Hope Society feels exhausted, like Sisyphus with his rock, fighting an uphill battle against indifference.

Still, as I leave the gym, I feel the final words of Serenity’s mother ringing in my ears. Creating hope.

“There needs to be change. I will be her voice. And I won’t keep quiet.”


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that 33 children in care died in the last fiscal year.

Paula Simons: Creating hope no easy task when children in care keep dying anonymous deaths


Psychiatry News Midlife Anxiety Tied to Late-Life Dementia

May 2, 2018

Midlife Anxiety Tied to Late-Life Dementia

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

May 01, 2018

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Moderate to severe midlife anxiety may be an independent risk factor for late-life dementia, new research shows.

Investigators reviewed the findings of four studies, encompassing almost 30,000 people. Individuals with midlife anxiety disorders or serious anxiety symptoms were significantly more likely to develop dementia in later life, on average at least a decade prior to their being diagnosed with dementia.

These findings excluded anxiety related to prodromal cognitive decline.

“These findings lay the foundation for considering whether older adults with a history of clinical anxiety should be screened for dementia, although, at this point, we think it is too early to suggest that clinicians screen middle-aged individuals with anxiety for early signs of dementia,” lead investigator Natalie Marchant, PhD, lecturer and assistant professor, Division of Psychiatry, University College London, United Kingdom, told Medscape Medical News.

But “if anxiety is indeed a risk factor for dementia, this has implications for being better able to identify individuals at risk and to intervene early to reduce risk of developing dementia,” she said.

The study was published online April 30 in BMJ Open.

Long Interval

“Depression has been consistently related to the development of dementia,” the authors write.

Some research suggests that a long interval between the diagnosis of depression and the diagnosis of dementia suggests that depression is a risk factor rather than merely a prodromal symptom of dementia, they note.

The role of anxiety as a potential risk factor has been less studied than that of depression, although anxiety symptoms have been found to be commonly experienced in the years preceding a dementia diagnosis and have been associated with cognitive decline.

Most previous studies have investigated the association of anxiety and dementia during the 5 to 10 years prior to dementia diagnosis.

However, because the average length of prodromal preclinical cognitive decline is estimated to be 5 to 6 years, and mild cognitive impairment (MCI) may progress to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) within 5 years, an analysis of studies in which there was an interval of at least a 10 years between anxiety assessment and diagnosis of dementia would provide a more accurate way of determining the likelihood that anxiety is independent from the dementia prodrome, the authors write.

“To date, there has been no systematic review to investigate the association between clinically significant anxiety and dementia,” so the “aim of this study was therefore to review the literature examining the association…over a longer time scale (≥10 years),” they state.

“Depression has been identified as one risk factor for dementia, and since anxiety frequently co-occurs with depression and is a relatively prevalent disorder, we wanted to understand whether clinical anxiety was also associated with risk for dementia,” Marchant explained.

“We included studies that had on average at least a 10-year time interval between assessment of anxiety and diagnosis of dementia to minimize the likelihood that anxiety was an early sign of dementia — what we call a ‘prodromal marker’ — because we were more interested to know whether it is an independent risk factor,” she said.

The investigators searched three databases for all articles published through March 8, 2017, that investigated the association between anxiety and the incidence of either dementia or MCI.

To be included in their analysis, studies had to include an anxiety diagnosis or assessment of anxiety symptoms; to be population-based; to assess anxiety at least, on average, 10 years before final clinical assessment for dementia; and to focus on late-onset dementia diagnoses (age ≥65 years).

Of 3509 citations, the researchers identified four studies, involving 29,819 patients, that met their inclusion criteria.

Study sample sizes ranged from 441 to 27,136 patients. Participants were recruited from either the community, hospital inpatient/outpatient populations, or both.

All the studies assessed and controlled for a variety of demographic, medical, and psychiatric risk factors (eg, sex, age, family history, social class, and marital status).

Accelerated Neurodegeneration

All four studies found a “significant increase” in the number of dementia diagnoses in patients who either had a diagnosis of anxiety or who experienced clinically significant anxiety symptoms ≥10 years prior to their being diagnosed with dementia (Zilkens et al: odds ratio [OR] =1.61; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.28 – 2.02]; Boot et al: OR = 7.4; 95% CI, 3.5 – 16; Gallacher et al: OR = 1.62; 95% CI, 0.59 – 4.41; Petkus et al: OR = 1.48; 95% CI, 1.01 – 2.18).

The association between anxiety diagnosis and later dementia was stronger in the retrospective studies that included lifelong diagnoses of anxiety in comparison with the studies that invesitgated the association over a shorter period.

In the study by Pelkus et al, the association remained, even when participants who developed dementia within 5 years of baseline assessment were excluded.

These findings “lend support that the associations found were independent of prodromal dementia symptoms,” the authors comment.

Findings regarding the relationship between anxiety and other risk factors were inconsistent.

For example, the study by Boot et al found a stronger association between anxiety diagnosis alone and future dementia, vs either depression diagnosis alone or diagnosis of mixed anxiety and depression. The other studies did not assess the interaction between anxiety and depression.

All four studies were rated highly on the Newcastle-Ottawa Scale.

The researchers did not conduct a meta-analysis, owing to the heterogeneity of the studies.

Nevertheless, “despite the heterogeneity of the studies that were included in our review, all of the studies that met our inclusion criteria showed an association between clinically significant anxiety and diagnosis of dementia,” Marchant noted.

“Additionally, we assessed the quality of these studies and found that they were all of good quality — meaning that they were fairly representative of the population and they accounted for a number of other factors that could have influenced their findings,” she continued.

“From that basis, we concluded that there is a relationship between midlife moderate to severe anxiety and risk of dementia,” she said.

The authors note that the longer interval between anxiety and dementia diagnosis “may provide evidence for a common biological pathway linking anxiety, depression, and dementia.”

This hypothesis suggests that an abnormal stress response, which typically is associated with anxiety, may accelerate the aging of brain cells and degenerative changes in the central nervous system, thereby increasing vulnerability to dementia.

Planting a Flag

Commenting on the report for Medscape Medical News, Keith Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs and uutreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, who was not involved with the research, said that there “was not a lot that’s new in this particular study, since it is a compilation of four existing studies, and most of the 30,000 people represented come from a single previous study of 27,000.”

Nevertheless, the study “plants a flag and is call to action to the research community, more than to the treatment community,” because it “would be good for the clinician community to have solid evidence as to whether treating anxiety in midlife would reduce risk of dementia.”

The 10-year “follow-up window” in these studies “would be consistent with the fact that anxiety is an independent risk factor for dementia, but the fly in the ointment is that dementia symptoms set in long after the brain changes that lead to dementia — in the case of Alzheimer’s, amyloid plaques can be deposited in the brain as many as 20 years before dementia sets in,” Fargo noted.

Midlife anxiety or depression, therefore, “may actually be an early symptom caused by brain changes that eventually manifest as dementia symptoms, so from that perspective, anxiety and depression might be predictive, but it is unknown if they are risk factors and if treating them will reduce risk — this will only be known with clinical trials.”

Although screening people in midlife who have anxiety “may seem innocuous, recent recommendations, as with prostate cancer, are to scale back on screening, because benefits are not strong enough to outweigh potential risk of overtreatment,” he cautioned.

Marchant agreed that it is currently too soon to suggest routine screening for dementia in middle-aged adults who have anxiety, but she noted that there are evidence-based nonpharmacologic therapies that “already exist to reduce anxiety,” so the “next step is to study whether these therapies could also reduce risk for dementia and therefore be offered as preventative therapy.”

The research was supported by a grant from the British Geriatrics Society. Dr Marchant was supported by University College London and the Alzheimer’ s Society. Dr Marchant’s coauthors and Dr Fargo have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

BMJ Open. Published online April 30, 2018. Full text



A bereaved parent

April 29, 2018

I’ve just revealed my story. I’m a bereaved parent. I’ve lost my baby. She died.

After the awkward silence settles in and divides us, you mumble something about how you didn’t know. My heart goes out to you. How could you know? There is no mark to distinguish me as a bereaved parent; I look just like you. But if you were to take a closer look, then maybe you would see that grief has taken it’s toll on my body and has left its subtle traces behind.

My arms look like your arms, but they ache. They ache from the emptiness they hold. They ache from the extra effort it took to push me out of my bed this morning.

My eyes look like your eyes, but look closely and you will see them frantically scanning the environment around me as I look for possible triggers. You will see them shift their focus as I enter into a daydream about what could have been or a flashback about what did.

My hands look like your hands, but you might notice the way they can never rest. They are yearning to tie shoes, brush back hair, and grasp onto tiny fingers. They are always reaching for what’s not there; for what will never be there.

My mouth looks like your mouth, but it is full of words left unsaid. It is brimming with all that I want you to know but I am too exhausted to explain. Inside my mouth are all of the things that I want to scream out loud, but I hide behind a forced smile instead.

My ears look like your ears, but mine are attuned to hear what you are really saying. I can hear the emptiness of hollow sentiments and the echoes left by silence. I can also hear the sincerity and love in your voice, even if your words aren’t perfect.

My feet look like your feet, but they are fatigued from a neverending journey through grief. Every day they find themselves navigating a new terrain, sometimes better and sometimes worse than what they traveled the day before. They want to go back to a time when they ambled along carefree, but instead, they face another day of traversing this new world I live in where certain footsteps cannot follow.

And what about my heart? Well, my heart is not all that different from yours.

Yes, it’s been shattered and ripped apart. Loss has attempted to destroy it beyond repair, but you may be surprised to see that it is whole. The surface may be cracked and splintered, but it has been pieced back together with the love and support of others.

Inside of my heart, just like yours, lives hope and the strength to support this body through another day.

This piece originally published in Still Standing Magazine

Elder’s dismissal by University of Alberta a setback for reconciliation, says Treaty 6 Grand Chief

April 13, 2018

Elder’s dismissal by University of Alberta a setback for reconciliation, says Treaty 6 Grand Chief

Elder Marilyn Buffalo was offered a 2-year contract and then dismissed a month later


Jorge Barrera · CBC News · Posted: Apr 12, 2018 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: April 12


Marilyn Buffalo (centre) was honoured in 2015 with a blanket by the University of Alberta during a ceremony acknowledging her role in establishing Aboriginal Student Services and laying the groundwork for the Faculty of Native Studies. (submitted by Marilyn Buffalo)
A former commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission says the University of Alberta took a step backwards on the road to reconciliation when it suddenly dismissed a prominent Elder.

Wilton Littlechild, who is now Grand Chief of Treaty 6, said he was “very concerned” with how the university treated Elder Marilyn Buffalo, 68, who was let go six days before her contract expired in late February, less than a month after being offered a two-year extension.

Buffalo helped lay the groundwork for the university’s Faculty of Native Studies in the late 1970s.

“It really sets us back in terms of advancing reconciliation through the highest level of the University of Alberta,” said Littlechild.

“It flies really against the reconciliation process in any post-secondary institution, not just the University of Alberta.”

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Littlechild himself is among the school’s alumni. He said the university, which sits in Treaty 6 territory, should hire Buffalo back.

“I was very concerned with what I heard from her in terms of a sudden dismissal,” said Littlechild.

“She brings a lot of positives to the institution.”

Buffalo, who has worked in and around First Nations politics, education and movements for 50 years, was initially hired by the university in December 2016 on a temporary contract as a senior adviser on Indigenous initiatives in the Office of the Provost.


Treaty 6 Grand Chief Wilton Littlechild, pictured here during his time as one of the three members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says he is concerned over the way the University of Alberta treated Elder Marilyn Buffalo. (Canadian Press)
Buffalo is a residential school survivor quoted in the TRC’s final report, and a former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada.

She was also one of the signatories to a memorandum of understanding signed last June between the university and the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The national centre was created as a repository for residential school historical documents.

On Jan. 29, Buffalo was offered a two-year contract to continue her work as a senior advisor when her original contract expired at the end of February. She then was suddenly let go on Feb. 22, according to letters provided to CBC News.

‘It hit me pretty hard’

Buffalo said she was abruptly dismissed after a short meeting with deputy provost Wendy Rogers.

“I had one question. I said, ‘well is this how you treat your elders in Treaty 6?'” said Buffalo.

She was then forced to immediately vacate her office and said she didn’t have time to gather all her items, including tobacco, which she left behind.

Her dismissal came at a time when the Indigenous community was dealing with the fallout from the Gerald Stanley verdict in Saskatchewan. Stanley was found not guilty in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, who was from the Red Pheasant First Nation.

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“So it hit me pretty hard, I am not going to lie about it,” said Buffalo.

Buffalo said her experience revealed the “hypocrisy” of the university’s commitment to reconciliation and that the senior levels of the university did not value her experience and Indigenous perspective.

“It is no longer acceptable to be treating me and my people as second class,” she said.

University wanted ‘different leadership approach’

The TRC, which was created by the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, delved into the history of residential schools and released a report that included 94 calls to action as guideposts for the country to achieve reconciliation. The TRC called on post-secondary institutions to take a leadership role in implementing the calls to action.


University of Alberta deputy provost Wendy Rogers wrote a letter to Marilyn Buffalo that ended her contract. (University of Alberta website)
The Feb. 22 termination letter written by Rogers and given to Buffalo said it had become “clear a different leadership approach” would “be necessary to move forward the University of Alberta’s reconciliation efforts.”

Less than a month earlier, Kathleen Brough, the university’s senior administrative officer, wrote to Buffalo saying she had a “remarkable career” and “compelling past experience” in a letter offering her the two-year contract.

“We are lucky to have you and the important and impressive traditional knowledge and historical perspective that you have,” wrote Brough, in the Jan. 29 letter.

During her time with the university Buffalo said she advised on the creation of an Indigenous house of learning, developed ties between the university and First Nations, advised on the creation of an Indigenous recruitment office and recommended the creation of a council of Indigenous Elders drawn from the ranks of the university’s alumni.

“I have a proven track record of integrity. I am honest and my people trust me,” said Buffalo.

“I want to go back to work. I am willing to forget this happened.”

Reconciliation work moving ahead, says university

After Buffalo’s departure, the university began reworking plans on responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

The university referred questions on the issue to Chris Andersen, dean of the Faculty of Native Studies. Andersen said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of Buffalo’s case because it was a human resources issue.


Chris Andersen, dean of the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, says the university is doing good work on responding to the TRC’s calls to action. (University of Alberta)
“Marilyn is absolutely amazing and it’s surprising to me that she hasn’t received an Order of Canada,” he said.

Andersen said the university’s reconciliation work had faced no setbacks but was actually steaming ahead. He said the institution had spent $12 million on Indigenous initiatives.

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Andersen said he was working with Shana Dion, assistant dean for First Nations, Métis and Inuit students, to create a new position for vice-provost of Indigenous initiatives. He said they are also developing the creation of a council of elders for the university drawn from the alumni — an idea that originated with Buffalo.

“I doubt there are too many universities in the history of Canada that have done more than we have done to respond to the TRC in the last couple of years,” he said.

“We want to build something that impacts not just us but seven generations going forward.”



Jorge Barrera
Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He is currently working for the CBC Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa.
Follow @jorgebarrera on Twitter

UK Legal Resource Handbook for Children with Disabilities

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Canadian SRL Study Results Confirmed by US Research

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A Time to Turn Around

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