Alberta goverment launched proble immediately after April death of baby in foster care

NDP calls on government to amend legislation and report deaths, serious injuries of children in care in more timely manner

By Jodie Sinnema, Postmedia NewsJune 2, 2011

EDMONTON — An internal Alberta government investigation was launched immediately after an four-month-old baby in foster care died in April.

Yvonne Fritz, the minister of Alberta Children and Youth Services, said she can’t publicly report details of every such death or serious injury when they occur, for fear of risking the children’s privacy and putting them or their families in danger.

“The law is very clear about our responsibility to guard the very personal and sensitive information about our children and our youth and our families that are being helped by our ministry,” she said Thursday.

Fritz, who wouldn’t speak directly to the case of a mother in Warburg whose baby was apprehended April 5 and died Apirl 11 at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton.

The mother’s lawyer plans to sue children’s services, the foster home and the social worker for taking the child and putting her in an unsafe place.

Social workers took the infant, but initially went to the house to apprehend the two children of the woman’s roommate.

An affidavit signed later said the social worker believed the mother may be an alcoholic and was concerned about “disharmony in the home” and “inexperienced babysitters.” The social worker requested a mental-health assessment of the mother. The mother isn’t an alcoholic, said her Whitecourt lawyer Larry McConnell, and believes her child may have suffered dehydration.

During one visit before the death, the mother noticed her baby had diarrhea and red marks on her head, McConnell said.

Fritz said the government is looking into the case.

“I think it’s important that we not compromise the rights, the dignity, the confidentiality of a family by discussing the specific circumstances that brought them to our attention and to take that out to the public within 48 hours,” Fritz said. “The public can have faith that we’re following the law.”

But Rachel Notley, NDP MLA, called upon the government to amend the legislation. She said the government should be mandated to publicly report — in a timely manner such as within 48 hours or within one week — the deaths and serious injuries of children in care. Without details about how a child died or was hurt, the public can’t determine if a child was put in an appropriate setting supported with proper resources, Notley said.

“It’s important for Albertans to have this information because we are the de facto parents when children go in care and we need to be able to evaluate day in day out whether we’re doing the best job we can keeping these children safe.”

Notley said B.C. reports such cases in a timely fashion. “The privacy considerations is a smoke screen. It is absolutely possible to maintain the privacy and the identification of the children and family involved while at the same time, providing enough information so Albertans can get a clear picture of how we’re doing at keeping these vulnerable citizens in our society safe,” she said

The government does provide brief information in its annual report. From March 2010 to March 2011, for instance, five children died while in protective services and 11 children were so seriously injured they needed hospitalization overnight.

“I agree, the public does have a right to know when a death occurs of a child in care,” Fritz said.

Such a reporting system “is working well,” she said, and doesn’t interfere with police investigations or court cases.

But Notley said more details are needed. For instance, four youth were seriously harmed during a “physical alteration,” but Notley said the government doesn’t report if those fights involved foster parents or other foster children. Such details might provide insight into whether or not the home or the parents are safe, she said.

“I think the reason that doesn’t happen here is because this government is not interested in subjecting itself to that level of accountability,” she said. “I hear the government make these sort of crocodile tears kind of statements that one death is one death too many and it shouldn’t happen again, but I don’t see any kind of meaningful transparent efforts on their part to make a change.”

The medical examiner’s office has done an autopsy on the baby who died in April. Results could take six months. Then, it will be up the medical examiner to determine if a public fatality inquiry is needed.

Notley said there is a three- to five-year wait for public inquiries, far too long for the government to learn from mistakes and respond.