Alberta’s child and youth advocate says the deaths of three children who were in government care before being reunited with their families show that better support is needed during such transitions.
Del Graff reviewed the cases of three Indigenous children, from separate families, who died when they were just five, two and one.
The children — referred to by the pseudonyms Sarah, Anthony and Mikwan to protect their privacy — died over 14 months in 2014 and 2015.
All three were taken into care because of addictions, domestic violence and concerns about neglect.
Their parents took some positive steps, such as parenting classes and addictions treatment, Graff said, but in each case the reunion was stressful.
“When they returned to their parents, each child was extremely vulnerable because of their young age and their unique needs,” the advocate said Tuesday.
Five-year-old Sarah was described as a child who would be shy at first, but become more outgoing and affectionate over time. She had a speech delay and would act out sometimes.
She was placed into foster care when she was 10 months old and was returned to her mother four years later.
Shortly after, Sarah was hospitalized with serious head and internal injuries. She was placed on life support and died a few days later.
Anthony, described as playful and content, was taken into care when he was a newborn. He showed symptoms of prenatal drug exposure.
About two months after he was returned to his mother, Anthony was hospitalized for a serious head injury. His mother said she didn’t feel she had the support she needed.
About a month after he was discharged, Anthony was admitted to hospital again — this time in critical condition. He had suffered a cardiac arrest and had serious injuries to his brain and spine. He died after a few days on life support.
His mother tested positive for drugs when she was pregnant. He was put into foster care when he was four days old. He had gross motor delays and doctors thought he may have a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
He was returned to parental care just two months before he died from head trauma.
Sarah’s mother was charged with second-degree murder, while Anthony and Mikwan’s mothers pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Graff is recommending that the Children’s Services Ministry brings in an intensive plan to help children who are returned to their families and ensures that any support children received in foster care is continued.
Graff expressed frustration that the Alberta government hasn’t done more to respond to a report his office released a year ago that highlighted the disproportionate number of Indigenous children in care. Issues similar to those in Sarah, Anthony and Mikwan’s cases were also raised in a review last fall of a nine-month-old girl’s death.
“We have seen repeatedly that government has said that they accept recommendations and then we wait for action,” said Graff.
Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said that in light of the legacy of residential schools, governments across Canada have been trying to keep Indigenous families together whenever possible.
“In examining these cases, it is clear that we need to do a better job of working with families to ensure complex needs are acknowledged, the right supports are in place and that children are kept safe.”
“A number of initiatives are underway to help address these issues, including enhanced funding to reduce caseloads, strategies to help caseworkers improve safety when considering a placement for a child and a program in four of our seven regions, which requires ongoing supports for 12 months prior to ending a permanent guardianship. We will be working towards expanding this program throughout the province. Children’s Services is also undertaking an internal review into cases involving tragedies at the time of reunification.
“The safety and well-being of children and families have been at the heart of the work of the Ministerial Panel on Child Intervention since the start of Phase 2 of their work, and we anticipate that they will continue to deliberate on these important issues as they go forward,” Hoffman said.
Jason Nixon, children’s services critic for the Opposition Wildrose, said Graff’s recommendations must be implemented quickly. He criticized the NDP government for not doing more to respond to the advocate’s previous recommendations.
“The heartbreaking stories of these three children’s short lives serve as yet another reminder of just how important it is to make constructive changes to our child intervention system.”