Last June 26, three months before his 18th birthday, Richard Cardinal hanged himself from a piece of wood nailed between two trees at his foster parents’ home near Sangudo, Alta. He was the 18th youth to die under a variety of circumstances in the province in little more than a year while under government care, and his suicide prompted renewed calls by the opposition New Democrats for reform of the Alberta department of social services and community health. Last week the results of the investigation of Cardinal’s death by Raymond Thomlinson, dean of social welfare at the University of Calgary, strengthened those demands. Thomlinson’s conclusion: the department provided better service arranging Cardinal’s funeral than it did moving him through 16 foster homes and six group homes in 14 years.
As well, Thomlinson said that three other children in the regional office responsible for Cardinal’s welfare were potential suicide victims. Declared Thomlinson: “While none of the children has been placed in as many foster homes as Richard experienced, I would suggest that three children appear to be somewhat at risk. One child in particular has now been placed in nine different foster homes.” As a result, Alberta Social Services Minister Neil Webber has ordered department officials in northwestern Alberta to look for suicide risks and has undertaken to make reform of thé province’s child welfare system his personal priority.
Cardinal first entered government care when social workers removed him from an alcoholic Métis family in northern Alberta in 1970, the day before his fourth birthday. Before he died, 13 years and eight months later, 25 social workers had handled the files on a difficult child who was prone to bed-wetting and rebelliousness. And Cardinal himself was painfully aware of how frequent moves adversely affected him. In ajournai entitled “I was a victim of child abuse,” he wrote before he arrived at his last foster parents’ home: “I didn’t want no ones [sic] to love any more. I had been hurt so many times so I began blocking out all emotions and I shut out the rest of the world.” Commented Thomlinson: “No child in the care of a government agency should be subjected to this number of moves and consequent torn human relations.”
Indeed, Leo and Terry Crothers, Cardinal’s last foster parents, realized that he needed expert attention. Three days
after he arrived in Sangudo, Cardinal, who had previously tried to kill himself at least twice, nailed a board between two trees, referring to the device as “his hanging tree.” In a letter in July to Webber, the Crothers charged that social workers had ignored their pleas for help. Thomlinson agreed, adding that
the department’s management of Cardinal’s case was generally “of a very low quality” and that from 1977 until his death it was unacceptable.
There are 15,000 children in the Alberta government’s custody, more than 40 per cent of them Indian or Métis, and Thomlinson is anxious that they do not suffer Cardinal’s fate. Unless changes take place quickly, Thomlinson’s revelations and the record of Webber’s department make it clear that many of the province’s young people face a dangerous future.
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