‘It hurts my heart:’ Social worker pushing for Alex Alerts for at-risk children

CALGARY — A British Columbia social worker says she won’t abandon her fight for a national alert system to prevent at-risk children from disappearing when their families unexpectedly relocate to different jurisdictions.

“Absolutely I’m frustrated,” said Patricia MacDonald, who has worked for B.C. Children’s Services for over 20 years, and had asked a judge not to return Alexandru Radita to his family.

Emil and Rodica Radita were found guilty nearly a year ago in Calgary of first-degree murder of the 15-year-old, who weighed just 37 pounds when he died in 2013. The trial heard that the boy, who was covered with bedsores and riddled with infection, died of complications due to untreated diabetes and starvation.

B.C. social workers apprehended Alexandru after an October 2003 hospital admission because his parents refused to treat his disease. He was placed in foster care, where he thrived for nearly a year before he was returned to his family, which eventually moved to Alberta.

MacDonald has proposed a system of “Alex Alerts” that would notify other provinces when at-risk children move.

In Radita’s case, the court heard B.C. social services had an address for the family in Alberta but didn’t pass it along.

“It hurts my heart that the social worker let him down and didn’t call Calgary because they had an address for them in Calgary apparently,” said MacDonald. “If they had called the Calgary social workers they would have been on it.”

MacDonald said she has contacted a number of provincial and federal agencies, including the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pushing for the alerts.

But she said she has been referred to a 2016 interprovincial child welfare protocol, which sets out the responsibilities when families move out of province.

Manitoba’s deputy child advocate said the protocol works if case workers know where the at-risk child is headed.

“There is a protocol in place where say the agency here would alert the system in Saskatchewan to say, ‘Hey, we have concerns about the children that are travelling with this family.’ We have seen it work to good effect in the cases that I’m aware of,” said Ainsley Krone.

But if social workers don’t know where the child has gone?

“Then I’m not clear what it would be at that point,” she said.

The president of the Alberta College of Social Workers agrees that even with the protocol there needs to be a better way to track at-risk children.

“I think it is a problem. Part of it is because each province has its own legislation so there’s no national legislation to cover these type of situations,” said Richard Gregory.

“I think it’s a fabulous idea. You hear about those cases where a family becomes aware that they’re going to be investigated by children’s services and they take off and move to a different jurisdiction and fly under the wire for a while. There’s no way of tracking them.”

Alberta’s minister of children’s services said she would be willing to discuss the issue.

“If there is some action that is child centred that helps protect their safety, I’m certainly open to a conversation about that,” said Danielle Larivee.

“I don’t think it’s problematic to think that we would converse with one another.”

An official with the office of Ontario’s Children’s Advocate is also willing to discuss the matter.

“In principle, an Alex Alert is a good idea if a social services agency in one province could send an alert to its counterparts in other provinces of the child’s status or trace of whereabouts if that information is known,” said Akihiko Tse.

“We realize however, that in the tragic case in question, the child was never brought to the attention of social services and was not seen or heard by those in other sectors (education, health etc.).

“We hope that this is an isolated case.”

MacDonald said it is not an isolated case and it’s disheartening that what would be such a simple and effective solution has been such a hard sell so far.

“The government just doesn’t want to spend any money because it’s an area that doesn’t bring in any money,” MacDonald said.

“It’s like they’re throwaway kids. It’s usually the lower end of the scale that gets tossed aside.”

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