Report on Alberta girl’s death highlights need for overhaul of child welfare system: advocates

Click to play video: 'Serenity case underscores need for change: child advocates'
Serenity case underscores need for change: child advocates
WATCH ABOVE: Alberta's child welfare system is back under the microscope, a day after a judge described in detail how it failed an Indigenous family. The fatality inquiry report into Serenity's death makes several recommendations about how to better protect children. As Dan Grummett reports, advocates see it as an opportunity to make much larger changes – Jan 5, 2023

One day after the release of a scathing review looking into how Alberta’s child welfare system failed a four-year-old girl who died while in care, some advocates for families say it demonstrates the need to recognize the status quo is not acceptable.

“This isn’t working,” Lynne Marshalsay said Thursday.

The Medicine Hat-based founder of Preserving Families, a support group for people dealing with Alberta Children’s Services, said she believes child welfare in the province is steeped in systemic racism and unfairly impacts Indigenous and low-income families.

“We need to tear this whole system down,” Marshalsay said. “There is no fixing the system… we need a complete overhaul.”

READ MORE: Fatality inquiry report looking into death of Alberta girl known as Serenity released

A fatality inquiry report released Wednesday made 20 recommendations to improve Alberta’s child welfare system after reviewing the circumstances that led up to the death of an Indigenous girl known as Serenity in 2014.

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While Serenity died of a brain injury after falling from a swing at her guardians’ home in Maskwacis, Alta., the report found that “what led up to her death started the day she was removed from the care of her mother.”

According to the 117-page document, the main reason Serenity was taken from her mother was because of the domestic violence her mother endured at the hands of her partner.

Serenity was emaciated and weighed 25 pounds when she died.

“There is no indication in any of the documentation that Serenity was not being properly looked after while in… (her mother’s) care,” Alberta judge Renee Cochard wrote in the report.

Cochard also indicated that a number of child welfare workers did not follow through on their mandate of always putting children’s interests first, there was insufficient communication between various people and organizations in both the health sector and in the field of child welfare and found that warning signs of potentially inadequate or negligent care were ignored or not properly acted upon.

Among Cochard’s 20 recommendations were that Children’s Services should support young Indigenous mothers and make the removal of children from their parents’ home “a last resort only,” that medical examiners’ reports be completed in a “timely manner” and within six months of a death “to provide families with closure and avoid misconceptions,” that a child’s biological parents should have access to legal assistance through Legal Aid right away when their child is first taken away from them and that lawyers representing biological parents should have access to same disclosure of documents as the children’s lawyer.

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“The judge has offered us some good insights in terms of the legal protections of family,” said Peter Choate, a professor of social work at Mount Royal University. “The judge has also said to us let us not be in a hurry to do permanent guardianship.”

Choate, who sat on a 2018 child intervention panel after Serenity’s death, said he believes the report highlighted the importance of the system giving more time to assess the psychological and medical development of a child when making decisions about their care.

Choate said the report suggested sometimes the system ends up working harder to protect itself than children and their families, adding “that’s a pretty harsh criticism.”

“The judge’s comments do suggest some dramatic changes,” he noted. “The judge has specifically said to us the status quo is not working.

“This is a child who shouldn’t have been in care. This is a system that did not properly care for this child.”

High number of Indigenous children in child welfare system

Choate added that for decades, about seven out of 10 children in the child welfare system have been Indigenous, a clear sign that something is wrong with how things are being done.

Bill C-92, the federal government’s legislation aimed at giving First Nations, Métis and Inuit people more autonomy in providing child welfare services, is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada.

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Mark Cherrington, a social justice advocate with the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, said he believes since Serenity’s death, First Nations and other Indigenous people have taken significant steps towards setting up their own child welfare systems.

“(This report) has really pushed child welfare over the precipice,” he said. “That was the last nail in the coffin.

“I can see that this is the beginning of the end for the child welfare system as we know it.”

“I personally find the child welfare system very patronizing, I find it colonial, I find it out of tune with community. I find that there’s a lot of staff turnover within the child welfare system… The child welfare system is broken.”

READ MORE: ‘Breathe life into our own laws’: Visions for the future of Indigenous child welfare in B.C.

Cherrington, who said he is currently working with the Dene Nation to help it establish its own child welfare system, said the reason that there are so many Indigenous children in care is not because of Indigenous families.

“It’s because of residential schooling, it’s because of colonialism, it’s because of the way we’ve been treating Indigenous, Métis and Inuit children and families for the last 150 years,” he said. “We have to own that and we need to support our First Nations… that are moving towards this.

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“I think it’s going to be a good day when that transition is complete.”

Cherrington said even if First Nations assert their autonomy over the handling of child welfare, government still have a role to play by ensuring those systems receive funding assistance and help with capacity.

‘Big-think kinds of changes’

Children’s Services Minister Mickey Amery issued a statement after Cochard’s report was released, saying Alberta’s government will continue to work to improve the system going forward and will review the judge’s recommendations. He also said “substantial changes have been made to help prevent this tragedy from happening again,” mentioning Serenity’s Law, passed in 2019, which expands reporting options when it comes to child welfare.

Choate said with Alberta in an election year, he worries the issues brought up by the report may slip through the cracks, because it calls for “big-think kinds of changes.”

“The province has to commit to a very substantial overhaul of the legislation, the commitment to Indigenous children and changes in practice,” he said. “That’s a big move but that’s really what the judge is calling on us to do.

“If you’re going to change, you can’t tinker. Tinkering has not worked.”

Click to play video: 'Calls for changes to child welfare system after scathing report into Indigenous child’s death'
Calls for changes to child welfare system after scathing report into Indigenous child’s death

Cherrington said he believes those with power in Alberta’s child welfare system “still don’t listen to their front-line staff.”

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“They catch on to an idea and they hang on to that narrative no matter what,” he said.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement with their system and it’s the same things that people have been telling them for the last 30 years. And they’re not listening.”

Alberta’s Office of the Child and Youth Advocate told Global News on Thursday that it was difficult to provide comment on the report because “our legislation prohibits our staff from disclosing the name or any identifying information about a child to whom our investigation relates or a parent or guardian of the child.”

“We received a copy of the fatality inquiry report and are currently reviewing it,” the OCYA said. “We have four months to respond to the recommendations that pertain to our office.”

Click to play video: 'Alberta judge makes recommendations after in-care death of Indigenous girl ‘Serenity’'
Alberta judge makes recommendations after in-care death of Indigenous girl ‘Serenity’

Marshalsay expressed concern that some of the child welfare workers whose actions appeared to be critcized in Cochard’s report are still working in the system and questions if they have made any changes. She believes more training is needed.

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“A lot of the problem is the management,” she said, describing some in management roles as “old-school players” who have not all adopted new ways of thinking about how to work in child welfare.

Marshalsay said the problems are also tied to the justice system, with government lawyers earning far more than Legal Aid lawyers often representing families, making it more challenging for families to successfully argue their cases in courts.

She said for the provincial government to make the changes that are needed, it is important for officials to meet with families affected by the system. She also noted that more public awareness about the issues is needed.

“There’s this mentality that if your kids came into care there’s a reason for it, and you must be a horrible person and you must be doing nothing to change yourself — and that is not the case.”

–With files from Dan Grummett and Heather Yourex-West, Global News

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