In 2010, when Andy Nieman was about three months into his new job as the Yukon’s child and youth advocate, he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it.
“By July I was pulling my hair out, what little hair I have left. My moccasins were smokin’ from all the running around I was doing. I said man, I don’t think I can do this, I think I bit off more than I can chew.”
He says it was his faith in God that got him through.
“I went to church one night and I said pray for me, I’m not sure if I’m the right person for this job,” he said.
After the service a woman came up to him and told him it was God who gave him the job and God who was going to bring him through it.
“That was all I needed to hear.”
Nieman was the Yukon’s first child and youth advocate. After five years on the job he will be handing over the reins in March.
As he remembers it, opening a new office in 2010 was a stressful thing.
He walked in the door to find an e-mail inbox full of messages from advocates around the country. They wanted to congratulate him, and they also wanted to know where his office stood on federal issues.
There were government department heads who wanted to meet about how his office would mesh with theirs and policy writers who wanted to get to work.
“Oh, yeah and we’re also seeing clients, to top it all off,” he said.
“I’ve got a 16-year-old teenager on the line saying, ‘I’m in a group home, I’m pregnant, I’m having this baby. They said they’re going to support me but then one of the social workers came and told me they’re going to apprehend my child at birth. Can you help me?”
Nieman’s office looks out for the rights of children and youth who are getting government services. That could mean kids whose special needs are not being met in the classroom, teens in group homes or youth struggling with mental illness.
In the five years he’s been on the job his office has created two important protocols, he said, one with the Department of Health and Social Services and the other with Education.
They lay out the rules for when the department interacts with his office, who has what responsibility and how information is to be released. Getting both done is an accomplishment, Nieman said.
“I mean, let that sink in for a minute, to get government to change policy or a program or legislation or procedures or protocols is a slow moving beast.
For years, Nieman has been calling for better diagnostic and treatment services for youth with mental illnesses. It’s an issue that still deserves attention, he said.
“The sooner you diagnose mental health in children and youth, the easier it is to treat and the more effective the treatment is, right? And so those children have a better chance of growing up to be productive, healthy adults.”
Right now, if a child or youth has a serious mental illness, they are put on a waiting list and sent down to either Alberta or B.C. for an assessment. Nieman said the waiting list is three to six months.
Kids shouldn’t have to go away to get help, he says.
“There are just so many problems that that creates. Parents can’t always afford to go down with their child so they just say no, we’re not going to go. So the child doesn’t get the treatment they need.”
Providing more mental health services for youth in the Yukon could let patients stay close to their families and culture. It could become a northern centre for the three territories, he said.
After five years on the job, Nieman is moving into private practice doing counselling and mediation.
“When I look at all the grief and the hurt and the suicides that are happening in First Nation communities in the North and Yukon here, it’s time for me to use my skill set to help with some of that,” he said.
The job is being taken over by Annette King. A born-and-raised Yukoner, King’s last job with the Yukon government was as director of victim services. She said she is looking forward to continuing the work that Nieman started.
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