Alberta minister responds to investigation on foster care deaths

EDMONTON – Alberta’s Human Services minister, reacting to reports the government kept under wraps the deaths of 89 foster children, said those cases weren’t published because the children died of natural causes or by accidents.

“There was no attempt to hide (the numbers),” Dave Hancock told the legislature during question period Monday.

“The numbers that weren’t published were those children who died tragically of natural causes.”

On Tuesday, Hancock released a statement saying, in part, “I want our children in care to experience what every child in this province should enjoy…That’s why I welcome the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald’s joint series on the tragic deaths of children in care — this is an important and heartbreaking issue that merits public discussion and debate.”

“The Journal and Herald looked at case data from 1999-2009, but three significant changes have happened over the last two years,” he added.

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(Read Minister Hancock’s full statement below.)

Both Hancock and Premier Alison Redford also stressed that the province must publicly report all child deaths and has created a new independent children’s advocate to look into the deaths of all kids in government care.

“We did that because I worked in the family justice system and I worked in child welfare, and I am a concerned Albertan just as every other Albertan is,” said Redford.

The remarks follow an investigation by the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald newspapers that found 145 children have died in government care since 1999.

The government has only publicized 56 deaths over that period.

The report lists youngsters who have died by hanging, malnutrition, hypothermia, head trauma, drowning, disease, fire, and stabbing.

They have overdosed, been asphyxiated, died in car crashes or because of sudden infant death syndrome.

A third of the children died as infants and another third were teenagers. Most were aboriginals.

The report also found that those in the system struggle with secrecy, bureaucracy and privacy rules that don’t even allow parents to publicly identify their dead children.

It found the government also lacks a mechanism to track recommendations made from death investigations to improve foster child safety.

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NDP critic Rachel Notley told the house that while Redford created a new Child and Youth Advocate last year to explore the deaths of foster children, the rules triggering an investigation have narrowed in order to lessen the number of investigations.

“Having a death reported to you is not the same as doing an investigation about how that death happened and how it can be stopped,” said Notley.

“The fact of the matter is the Children’s Advocate has done two reports so far. It’s just not good enough.”

All three opposition parties asked Speaker Gene Zwozdesky to grant an emergency debate on the issue, saying they need to get to the bottom of why the deaths were not reported and to make sure the children currently in care are being treated well.

Zwozdesky rejected the debate, noting that while it is a critically important issue, there were already 42 questions and answers on the topic during question period alone, not to mention member statements on the topic.

The newspaper report was the result of a four-year legal battle between the newspapers and the province, which declined to release the information until ordered to do so by Alberta’s privacy commissioner.

Watch above: The Edmonton Journal’s Karen Kleiss talks to Global News about the investigation. 

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Hancock told the house that they fought the release of the information to protect the privacy of the individuals involved and to prevent collateral harm to people connected to those in foster care.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith called for a public inquiry into the deaths and the state of the system. That was rejected by the government.

“It’s not another inquiry we need,” said Hancock.

“We’ve actually had the inquiries, and now we’re implementing the results of those inquiries.”

Hancock said the deaths of children in care are not only reviewed by the Children’s Advocate, but also by a quality assurance council, and the medical examiner.

“It’s not one investigation. It’s three,” said Hancock.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he fears the death numbers are only the tip of a much larger problem.

“If the number of deaths of children in care is this grossly under-reported, then the number of children seriously injured while in government care is very likely under-reported as well,” said Sherman.

Minister Hancock’s statement released Tuesday:

“I want our children in care to experience what every child in this province should enjoy — that is a safe, loving and nurturing  home that gives them every possible opportunity to reach their full potential. I know all MLAs in the legislature share my goal.

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“That’s why I welcome the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald’s joint series on the tragic deaths of children in care — this is an important and heartbreaking issue that merits public discussion and debate. The stories told are a reminder that we need to do everything we can to protect Alberta’s children.

“We have been working hard. The Journal and Herald looked at case data from 1999-2009, but three significant changes have happened over the last two years:

  1. In 2012, we created the independent Office of the Child and Youth Advocate.  Under our legislation, the Advocate must be notified of all serious injuries and deaths of children receiving services (whether they are in the province’s care or not) and can access all government information relating to the child in question. 
  2. We established the Child and Family Services Council for Quality Assurance. The Council is made up of experts and advocates who are appointed by government but who work independently with Human Services to identify effective practices and make recommendations to the Minister for improving and strengthening child intervention services.
  3. In 2012, our government began reporting all deaths of children in care, regardless of their cause.  This information is available in the Human Services Annual Report as well as the Child and Youth Advocate’s Annual Report. 

“In addition, every time a child in the care or custody of Human Services dies — no matter the cause — the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner conducts an investigation.

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“But, when it comes to protecting our children, we can always do better — one death of a child in care is one too many.  This week’s debate in the legislature is a strong reminder that we can all play an important role in that process. That’s why I have invited our opposition colleagues to join a ministerial roundtable to discuss critical questions raised about the death of children in care. Like my opposition colleagues, I want to have confidence that we’re publicly reporting the right information about these deaths and following the right processes when they happen. My hope is that our ministerial roundtable will table a report in the legislature, for debate.

“In addition, before that roundtable takes place, I have also offered my opposition critics access to a full, in-depth briefing about the measures we currently have in place to prevent deaths from happening and to respond when tragedy strikes.

“We’ve been working hard to protect all of Alberta’s children. And we’re going to keep moving forward.  That’s why, this week, I committed to publicly tracking and reporting our progress toward meeting all recommendations — whether they’re from the Child and Family Services Council for Quality Assurance, the Child Advocate or the Chief Medical Examiner — that relate to children in care.  I want Albertans to know how we’re doing and have confidence that their child welfare system is protecting and nurturing Alberta’s most vulnerable children.

“There is always more to do. And we’re going to keep making our system better for Alberta’s children, together.”

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With files from Global News

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