Watchdog to probe First Nations child abuse case as B.C. minister urged to resign

Click to play video: 'First Nations Leadership Council calls for resignation of B.C. minister Mitzi Dean'
First Nations Leadership Council calls for resignation of B.C. minister Mitzi Dean
WATCH: The horrific case of foster parents torturing and starving two children in their care, one who died, has outraged the First National Leadership Council saying more should have been done. Kristen Robinson reports. – Jun 26, 2023

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

The First Nations Leadership Council in British Columbia is calling on the minister in charge of child welfare to resign, citing her “inadequate response” to a horrific case of child abuse in foster care that was described in court as “evil and inhumane.”

Earlier this month, two Fraser Valley foster parents — a married couple — were sentenced to 10 years behind bars for manslaughter and six for aggravated assault for their cruel and appalling torture of two Indigenous children, one of whom died in their care.

Click to play video: 'Sentencing hearing in case of horrendous child abuse'
Sentencing hearing in case of horrendous child abuse

Mitzi Dean, who has led the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) since November 2020, has failed to take meaningful accountability in the case, the leadership council alleges. Evidence presented in court, including 16,000 video clips, showed that the ministry hadn’t checked on the children in seven months.

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“This tragedy reminds me of the Savannah Hall case from 2001, in which a three-year-old Indigenous girl in foster care died of abuse and suffocation. The coroner’s verdict determined it was a homicide and included 17 recommendations to MCFD. And yet, here we are again,” said Terry Teegee, regional chief of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, in a Monday news release.

“Case after case, the Province of British Columbia offers condolences and promises to ensure it won’t happen again. Clearly, this is not enough.”

Teegee said repeated tragedies impacting First Nations children in care are the result of “negligence and a lack of systemic oversight.” The call for Dean’s resignation comes as B.C. representative for children and youth, Jennifer Charlesworth, launches an investigation into the Fraser Valley tragedy.

Global News has reached out to the minister for comment.

Click to play video: 'B.C. minister responds to case of horrific foster parent abuse'
B.C. minister responds to case of horrific foster parent abuse

Neither the foster parents nor the children in the recent case can be identified under a publication ban. The crimes against the youth — including punching, kicking, whipping, slapping, confinement, and forced starvation — were committed in Lake Errock, near Chilliwack, between 2020 and 2021.

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Days after an attack in late February 2021, the 11-year-old boy died, weighing only a little over 63 pounds. In Chilliwack Provincial Court on June 16, Judge Peter La Prairie called the children’s environment a “house of horrors.”

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In a Monday release announcing the launch of an investigation into the case, Charlesworth called it “one of the most egregious situations” she has seen in more than 40 years of working with children and families.

“I will do everything in my power as Representative to ensure that we learn what happened and – most significantly – what needs to be done to ensure that the system is transformed so that this does not happen to any child, anywhere in this province, again,” Charlesworth wrote.

“My Office is also advocating for the other children who have been impacted by this violence and monitoring the care that they are receiving. They will need highly specialized care and counselling over time.”

Global News has reached out to Charlesworth for comment. MCFD has said it will cooperate fully in the investigation and implement any ensuing recommendations.

Click to play video: '‘I checked under the bed’: Inquest hears from foster parent on duty the day Traevon Desjarlais died'
‘I checked under the bed’: Inquest hears from foster parent on duty the day Traevon Desjarlais died

In the aftermath of the Lake Errock sentencing, Dean said she was “absolutely horrified” by the case and the children — siblings — “were failed at every level” by the system meant to protect them. She assured Global News that changes had been implemented at the implicated MCFD office in Hope.

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“I have been assured by the provincial director that a thorough review has taken place and that all remedial action steps have already been completed. The ministry does have a robust set of policies and procedures and they weren’t followed in this particular situation and that is not acceptable to me,” Dean said on June 20.

When asked by Global News what MCFD policies and procedures hadn’t been followed, why they weren’t followed, and how it was possible that MCFD hadn’t checked on the children in so many months, she repeatedly stated that the case was a “real tragedy” and extended her “deepest sympathies.”

An emailed statement from MCFD, however, said all placement decisions for children in foster care have been reviewed at the Hope office to ensure care providers have been appropriately assessed. Involved staff will also receive training on guardianship responsibilities, including regular meetings with children in care, updating care plans, completing cultural plans for Indigenous children, and ensuring adequate medical care and support services are in place.

The ministry said a review of the involved team’s cases would be completed “focusing on family service, child service and resource standards.”

The First Nations Leadership Council, however, is calling for a systemic review of all MCFD’s child protection and guardianship policies for First Nations children, and of all child protection cases and placements involving First Nations families, in addition to Dean’s job.

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“It is Minister Mitzi Dean who is to be accountable and responsible. Even with the death of just one child, that is horrific enough as it is, but we continue to see this as a trend that’s happening in the child welfare system as it currently exists, ” Cheryl Casimir of the leadership council told Global News.

“There are too many injuries and too many deaths of our kids when they’re in the care under the ministry, so we need to change that by making sure the provincial and federal governments are fully supporting First Nations to be able to implement their own laws.”

Click to play video: '‘Our government is committed to reconciliation’: Minister Mitzi Dean on MCFD changes'
‘Our government is committed to reconciliation’: Minister Mitzi Dean on MCFD changes

A handful of First Nations in B.C. are currently in the process of negotiating with the B.C. and federal governments to retake jurisdiction over child welfare.

As of this time last year, 68 per cent of the 5,000 or so children in B.C. government care were Indigenous. More than 100 First Nations, urban Indigenous and Métis communities had access to a delegated Indigenous child and family services agency as well, but only 14 of them had full child protection and removal authority.

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Casimir said Indigenous-led systems aim to provide support and intervention early, to avoid a case reaching the child removal stage, include more culturally-appropriate wraparound services, and often result in placement with Indigenous families in communities where there is greater oversight opportunity.

She said she was “really disappointed” by Dean’s repetitive answers to accountability questions about the Lake Errock case, which she described as “cold and heartless.”

“She just continued to just repeat that same phrase over and over again, without any consideration to how the sibling might feel, extended family and community might feel,” Casimir said.

“There’s been a number of other initiatives that have happened under her watch where we’ve called for accountability in those instances and nothing has happened. How many more children would need to die before a decision is made to removal this individual, who is apparently a part of the problem?”

Click to play video: '‘We must take care of our children’: First Nation leader on ending child suffering in welfare system'
‘We must take care of our children’: First Nation leader on ending child suffering in welfare system

At an unrelated press conference on Monday, Premier David Eby said the case from Lake Errock was a “horrific situation involving vulnerable kids” and a couple of “criminals who posed as foster parents” who “deserve everything the court gave them and so much more.”

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“The system failed these kids as well. Our social workers were supposed to be checking on them, our social workers were supposed to be ensuring their safety and something went horrifically wrong here,” he said.

“(Dean) and her team are doing a full review and investigation from their side, we have asked and we are very hopeful that the representative for children and youth will do an investigation into this.”

Due to privacy matters, Eby said the government is very limited in what it can say about the children’s case, but Jennifer Charlesworth’s office is not. He said he expects the representative to be “uncompromising and blunt” so the government can prevent such a tragedy from reoccurring.

He did not address calls for Dean’s resignation.

The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers culturally competent counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous peoples experiencing trauma, distress, strong emotions and painful memories. The line can be reached anytime toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.

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