March 21, 2016 1:19 pm
Updated: March 21, 2016 5:25 pm

Case of Alberta baby who drowned in homemade alcohol container spurs calls for improved children services

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Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate is urging the government to work harder to support parents with addictions after a tragic case resulted in the death of a baby whose family was receiving intervention services. A report released Monday on the drowning of a 10-month-old girl in a vat of homemade alcohol is calling for mentorship for frontline workers when it comes to maintaining family support networks, and ensuring those people know who to tell when a child’s situation becomes dangerous.

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“Family and community members tried to create a safety network but did not have the resources they needed; nor does it appear that they knew what to do when the risk increased,” the report reads.

READ MORE: Alberta legislature committee votes to restore $275K funding to child advocate

“Lily” (not her real name) lived with her parents and siblings in Fox Lake, a remote Alberta First Nation. She was remembered in the report as happy, active and curious about her surroundings.

“She was just learning to walk,” said the report. “Lily was surrounded by a large extended family who loved her.”

The baby’s mother, “Victoria”, was born in the First Nation but mostly grew up with extended family in a neighbouring community because of her own mother’s addiction to alcohol. The report said she stayed sober while she was pregnant with Lily and her older brothers and sisters, but showed signs of alcohol addiction and started drinking as a teen.

Lily’s father, “Richard”, worked sporadically and often left Victoria alone with the children. He “could be violent when he abused alcohol” and the couple’s drinking “often led to episodes of domestic violence,” according to the report. Their children stayed with grandparents when they felt unsafe.

“The family lived in a community with limited access to alcohol,” the report said.

“When legal alcohol could not be purchased, it would be made and stored in containers.”

Drinking, domestic violence, escape from fire

The report said a year before Lily was born, Child Intervention Services (CIS) were notified Victoria and Richard were drinking and not adequately caring for their children. Case workers met with extended family and the children’s grandparents agreed to monitor the situation, which ended CIS’ involvement. When Lily was almost eight months old, CIS received another report, including that Victoria had been assaulted by Richard. She spent the night in jail because she was drunk and uncooperative with police.

“A caseworker made numerous attempts to meet with Victoria after her release, eventually contacting her by phone,” the report said.

“Victoria had separated from Richard and was staying with her mother. She declined a referral to a treatment program.”

About a month after that, Victoria had been drinking during a visit to a friend’s home with Lily, and fell asleep. A fire broke out and Victoria was awakened by a family member who ran into the home to save Lily. CIS was not made aware of this incident at the time.

At the time of her death, the family was receiving child intervention services from a Delegated First Nation Agency (DFNA) through a safety phase assessment. That step in the process was part of an initial assessment involving interviews with family members to see if a child needs protective services.

READ MORE: Fifth report of teen suicide sparks call for change from Alberta Youth Advocate 

Lily’s death

About a week after the fire, Victoria—who’d been drinking—fell asleep while caring for Lily. Victoria’s son came home from school and found his sister’s body in the container of homemade alcohol. He woke his mother, who took the baby to the local health centre, where she was pronounced dead. Richard was not at home at the time.

Victoria pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing death for failing to provide adequate care to Lily and was sentenced to 90 days in jail. Following her death, Lily’s siblings were placed in the care of relatives, according to the report.

Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate, Del Graff, said the purpose of his office’s report is to learn from “this sad circumstance” and recommend ways to improve the province’s child intervention system.

“Lily was in a tragic circumstance in that her parents had significant addictions problems. And those addictions problems, when they were drinking, led the parents to not provide for the safety needs of Lily at certain points in time,” Graff said.

Safety recommendations

“This review is not about blame, it is about learning and making improvements so that other children and families may benefit from this tragedy,” Graff said in a statement.

He made two recommendations:

  • The Ministry of Human Services should ensure that ongoing support and mentorship is provided to frontline workers to assist in the creation and planning of protective support networks for children living with parents who have addictions.
  • The Ministry of Human Services should ensure that those involved in support networks know what to do and who to notify when risk increases for a child.

“If there’s one thing to learn it’s that when parents are involved with addictions there needs to be supports around the children so that they are safe and so that their well-being can be attended to,” Graff said.

He said it’s also important that family members know what to do when risks to children increase.

“It’s more training, certainly, but it’s more attention to the needs of children when they’re in these types of circumstances where parents are abusing substances and the support systems around those families aren’t sure what to do when the risks increase.”

Click here to read the full investigative review

The province’s minister of human services accepted the recommendations and said he was comparing them to current policy and practice. Irfan Sabir said his department is working to improve the child intervention system and will meet with the OCYA to discuss the expected outcome.

“By strengthening how we work with children, families and our service delivery partners—including Indigenous partners—we can improve the system as a whole,” Sabir said in a statement. “We still have work to do, and our government is committed to taking action to implement needed improvements.”

The review emphasized that when Victoria and Richard were sober, they were “attentive and caring parents” and suggested a support network of extended family and community members can help when addiction affects parental ability.

“We encourage families to reach out to their extended family and community members to assist, reducing stress and pressure wherever possible,”. Aaron Manton, press secretary for the Minister of Human Services, said.

“This helps struggling parents develop confidence in the skills they have while providing additional support where needed. The result is that most of the families we work with stay together and build stronger connections to their community support networks.”

Alberta Liberal Leader David Swann, who co-authored February’s Alberta Mental Health and Addictions Review, said the report shows the need for systemic reform in how addictions are treated, and agreed with the recommendations.

“The evidence is clear that community supports, prevention and early intervention have a huge impact on saving lives,” Swann said in a statement. “Mental health and addiction issues don’t just impact the sufferers directly, the damage done to families and communities is immense. We simply have to change the way these problems are dealt with.”

CIS is now implementing the Signs of Safety (SOS) practice model throughout the province, said the report, which instructs caseworks on how to create support networks by “focusing on family strengths and resources.”

“When Victoria and Richard drank, relatives took care of their children. Although there were conversations between Child Intervention Services and Lily’s extended family, further work was needed with family members to help them develop a comprehensive understanding of how they could increase the children’s safety.”

With a file from The Canadian Press

© 2016 Shaw Media

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