Alberta changes rules on child foster deaths

Alberta's human services ministers says the government
will expand what can be reported about the deaths of children in
Alberta's human services ministers says the government will expand what can be reported about the deaths of children in care. File photo

EDMONTON – The Alberta government introduced changes Tuesday to allow the publication of names and photos of children who die in government care.

“I have said from day one I didn’t like the way the publication ban sat,” Human Services Minister Manmeet Bhullar told a news conference after he introduced Bill 11 in the legislature.

“It is the basic right of each and every one to express grief publicly or to protect privacy in a period of tremendous stress.

“This is not a decision for the government to make.”

The proposed Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Amendment Act will also give Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff and officials more latitude and powers to investigate the deaths or serious injuries of children in care.

Graff’s mandate will also be expanded to authorize and investigate the death of a child in care up to two years after the child has left the system.

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Families who don’t want the name and photo of their deceased child to be published can still go to court to get such an order.

The bill is the result of a Post Media newspaper series last November that detailed gaps in child death investigations and frustration over parents not being allowed to talk publicly about the death of their loved ones.

Using documents obtained under freedom of information rules, the series revealed the province has used its privacy laws to avoid telling the public about the deaths of 89 children in care since 1999.

Bhullar, after he was named to the human services portfolio in December, then released information that indicated there were hundreds more deaths of children who were not in direct care, but had been at one time, or who were in indirect care, or who had injuries under investigation.

With those figures added in, the total number of deaths since 1999 stands at 741 out of 275,000 children.

The law currently prevents anyone — even the parents of a dead child — from speaking publicly about what happened.

Critics have said that can be abused to cover up government neglect or negligence.

The Post Media series also detailed a patchwork system of investigations, with overlapping jurisdictions and no system to make sure that recommendations to prevent future child deaths were monitored or implemented.

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NDP human services critic Rachel Notley said being allowed to name the children is a step forward, but said the bill doesn’t mandate the release of internal reports of child death investigations.

“They (the reports) remain internal and the only way we see those reports is if the children’s advocate happens to do an investigation,” said Notley.

“Unfortunately (Graff’s) mandate — although slightly broadened — is limited by his resources. So we’re not seeing him doing the vast majority of investigations that should occur.

“Then we continue to have independence in theory but not in practice, and transparency in theory but not in practice.”