Foster care system under fire

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.

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.”

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 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.

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.

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.

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