Minister promises changes to combat deaths in foster care

EDMONTON — Alberta’s Human Services minister says he’s committed to changing laws so more information can be released on the deaths of children in foster care.

EDMONTON — Alberta’s Human Services minister says he’s committed to changing laws so more information can be released on the deaths of children in foster care.

Manmeet Bhullar said Wednesday he also wants changes to allow parents to be able to speak out when one of their children dies while a ward of the province.

“This is something that needs change,” Bhullar told reporters as he unveiled plans to improve the system. “I’m not a fan of the way the law sits today.”

Those plans include a round-table discussion of experts on Jan. 28 and 29 to look at improving the way foster deaths are investigated and reported.

The pledge follows an investigation by Postmedia late last year that found 145 children had died in government care from 1999 to the fall of 2013, but only 56 of the deaths were made public.

The government revealed Wednesday that another four children died in the latter half of last year and another child died over the weekend, bringing the total number to 150.

Media reports say the most recent was a young girl with developmental disabilities who lived at a care home in Edmonton. But Bhullar said for privacy reasons he could only confirm a death in care had occurred.

That, he said, is why things need to change.

“Every single child, in care or not in care, deserves to be honoured and respected. The way to honour and respect them is to make sure that their story is learned from and told and we make progress and change based on that,” he said.

The government also released data Wednesday on the deaths of 592 other children who had received government aid since 1999, but were not wards of the province when they died.

Of those, 341 died after government care had ended or died as adults while receiving government aid; 101 died while an investigation was either being launched or was underway into suspicious illnesses or injuries; and 84 died in their parents’ care while the family was receiving government aid and support for problems such as addiction.

The total number of children cared for by the province during that period was 275,000.

The province fought the Postmedia for years over the release of more information and only gave in last year when ordered to do so by the privacy commissioner.

The newspaper stories chronicled a child-care system crippled by organizational dysfunction with little oversight on implementing safety recommendations.

It also found secrecy rules so pervasive, parents whose children died in government care could not speak publicly about it.

The series noted one third of the deaths were babies, one third were teenagers, and most were aboriginals.

Premier Alison Redford has distanced herself from the deaths, noting she has only been in control since late 2011.

Wildrose party critic Jeff Wilson renewed his call for a full public inquiry given the new information on the 592 deaths.

“These new numbers should be a wake-up call for the government to take whatever action is necessary to bring about the change we need to see,” Wilson said in a news release.

“Quite clearly, this is a system that is deeply flawed, resulting in untold pain, misery and grief for hundreds of Alberta families.

“(But) I’m pleased that this information has come forward, and the announcement of additional efforts to help remedy the many problems the system faces is a step in the right direction.”

Bhullar rejected a public inquiry.

“I think it’s more important to devote public resources right now to making the system stronger,” he said.

Liberal critic David Swann said Bhullar is focusing too much on the communication aspect of the problem while ignoring in-house surveys that speak to the root cause: underfunded and overworked staff.

“(The government) has penny-pinched Human Services and expected miracles from front-line staff,” Swann said.

Bhullar’s plan promises to address issues such as resources and training for front-line staff, along with examining broader problems such as poverty, addictions, and sexual abuse.

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