Secrecy of foster care deaths a sobering story

The normally hyper-partisan atmosphere in Alberta’s Legislative Assembly was sobered today with news of a tragic and startling story.

Dave Hancock MLA Edmonton-Whitemud

Dave Hancock

A six-month investigation by Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald reporters based on death records unsealed after a four-year legal battle revealed a startling number of unreported deaths of children in care of the province between 1999 and 2009. The investigation found 145 foster children have died since 1999, nearly three times more than the 56 deaths revealed in government annual reports during that time.  According to the report, at least 74 of these 145 children who died while in foster care were Aboriginal or Métis.

While this story raises serious questions about transparency and why the government would keep these numbers from the public, there are still unanswered questions about how this number compares to other provinces and how it compares to children not in foster care.

Opposition parties in the Assembly united in support for a motion introduced Wildrose MLA Jeff Wilson this afternoon to hold an emergency debate and a public inquiry into these deaths.

Rachel Notley Edmonton MLA Strathcona NDP

Rachel Notley

Human Services Minister Dave Hancock argued against holding an emergency debate, claiming that the  government had acted to protect the privacy of the children and their families by not releasing the full number of children who died in foster care. Mr. Hancock also claimed that recent legislative changes made by the government, including the creation of the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate, would ensure these numbers would not be kept secret in the future.

After a brief legislative wrangle over whether to hold an emergency debate, Assembly Speaker Gene Zwozdesky ruled against the idea.

Wildrose official opposition leader Danielle Smith: “These truly disturbing revelations not only mean that something is seriously wrong with how vulnerable children are cared for in this province, but that there are major gaps in how incidents are being reported. We must get to the bottom of what it is and begin the long process of fixing the system. If we aren’t reviewing these deaths and doing everything we can to learn from them, we are failing Albertans and risking the lives of vulnerable children.”

Gene Zwozdesky

Gene Zwozdesky

New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley: “This government is more concerned with protecting themselves from their own record on kids in care than in actually protecting those kids. But these kids deserve better—and so do Albertans. With this government’s cuts to the services that families living in poverty depend on, more children will likely end up in government care. We need to ensure that the system isn’t failing these kids.”

Liberal opposition leader Raj Sherman: “If the number of deaths of children in care was underreported, then the number of children seriously injured while in government care was very likely underreported as well. What is very clear now is that this Conservative government has failed in its most basic duty to protect some of the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society, children at risk. Only a fraction of the 145 deaths were deemed worthy of an investigation. In cases where reviews were completed, recommendations were not followed.”

As leader of the party that has formed government in Alberta since 1971, Premier Alison Redford cannot take any position less than one that directly addresses this issue. Anything less will raise serious questions about the competency of the current government.

Regardless of the original reasons why these deaths were unreported, it is important that the government come forward and provide a clear explanation as to why these cases were kept secret. As Albertans, we have a responsibility to protect our most vulnerable citizens, particularly those in care and especially children.

14 thoughts on “Secrecy of foster care deaths a sobering story

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  3. jerrymacgp

    Each and every child apprehension is ostensibly done to protect the child. Accordingly, one death of a child in care is one too many. This situation is appalling, even more so given that this government had been in power since 1971, when many if not most of these unfortunate kids’ grandparents were themselves children.

    Hancock deserves to be fired, as well as each and every upper-level manager in child services, in order to hold decision-makers accountable.

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  4. Jackie Larson Carmichael

    Kudos to the papers for doing the work on this. Way too much is cloaked in Alberta under the name of protecting the innocent. Zwoz should let this one come to the floor. And people need to take their lumps and have the decency to look really, really contrite instead of glib and made of Teflon like ha! nothing sticks to ME. Biggest problem Tories face is their Teflon complex.

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  5. Laurel Dhalla

    Thank you to the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald reporters for their dedication and tenacity in uncovering this tragedy. It is appalling. These children have been treated like non-entities. The richest province in Canada cannot protect their most vulnerable population. We all need to step up and support our foster care system. Pointing fingers and laying blame does not solve this issue. We cannot pretend that what has happened doesn’t affect our society at a deep level. This is a call for all of us to get involved, to bring compassionate and inspired changes into the system. To acknowledge the tragic loss of life, to acknowledge that taking children away from their parents is not always in the child’s best interest.

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  6. Laurel Dhalla

    To further clarify my above comment that taking children away from their parents is not always in the child’s best interest, I want to add, that we as a society can and should be there for one another. I can’t commit to being a foster parent. BUT, I can commit to supporting an overwhelmed at-risk family, thru cooking, cleaning, babysitting, taking kids to school, activities or doctors appointments. I understand that some situations do require the child to be removed from the home, but with strong, non-judgemental, community support, we can, as a society, help other parents keep their children safe and loved at home. We can’t keep expecting governments to provide solutions while we sit back and criticize or ignore the results.

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  7. Alex

    Notice how the government revealed it’s freezing MLA pay the day after this. Looks like a well-timed distraction to me.

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  9. Narain

    I work as a health professional and come across many families who have foster children. The death of any child is sad and should never happen. What the stats and the media don’t report is something that would be considered politically incorrect. Why is there a higher rate of death amongst aboriginal and Metis children? It is due to the fact that there is a higher percentage of foster kids that are from those populations. Sadly, I have seen many kids from those populations whose biological parents do not properly look after them–from poor nutrition to total neglect. It is no surprise that their immune system will be more weak and they are more likely to have health issues. I don’t think you can blame the government for all of this. If some of those biological parents had been good parents to begin with, there kids would not have been placed in foster care. All the foster parents I see give more love and attention that many biological parents give their own.

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  10. Julie Ali

    While it is true that the biological parents may not have provided appropriate care for their children it is not an excuse for the government of Alberta failing to do its job.
    Now think of this problem the way Velvet Martin presents the problem. If this had been 145 ordinary children in the care of their own families who died–we would have an uproar and a public inquiry pretty darn quick.
    When a child dies in the family of origin, the police will investigate if there are any suspicions and yet 145 children have died in the foster care system and we are expected to believe that this is all due to natural causes?
    I highly doubt this.
    If these deaths are due to natural causes, then provide the evidence. If these deaths are due to negligence on the part of all concerned with the responsibility for the care of our children –then provide real consequences for failures in performance.

    Accountability means more than saying trust me.
    Transparency means more than using privacy concerns to conceal the truth about these cases.
    You only have to read the story of Samantha Lauren Martin to understand how the government of Alberta failed a child with special needs who could not even communicate the poor level of care (if you can call it that) she endured.

    If the government of Alberta was really serious about our children —and these are our children —because each child in Alberta is part of the human family we all belong to–then they should tell us the names of each and every child who has died and furthermore, they need to tell us how each child died.

    I see no reason for the secrecy other than the fact that the government of Alberta created this secrecy –not only in the foster care system but in every other sector of our society. You only have to consider rural Albertans impacted by the oil industry (well water on fire in Rosebud, Alberta) to see the track record of the Tories which is all about hiding the truth.
    We need a public inquiry into the deaths of these children.
    Most of them are aboriginal kids.
    The federal government needs to do this inquiry and make sure it is nationwide.
    This is a genocide of First Nations children and in my opinion it is a legalized eradication of the aboriginal peoples of Canada—that will continue to do the work of the residential schools.

    This is an issue that every Albertan needs to yap to our government at all levels about.
    Why should these children die?
    Why should we get their names hidden from us?
    Why should their mummies go to court in order to tell us their names?
    Why can’t the parents speak their stories?
    Why is there this silencing of the families in Alberta?

    These are all good questions to ask your MLA.
    And on getting no answers from them–you might want to do what I do–which is ask for change.

    Reply
  11. Allie Wojtaszek

    That’s somewhat misleading as well, Narain. FN children are apprehended from homes more frequently than any other children and a lot of the times for reasons that should be dealt with by investing resources into the family situation (to educate, support, provide medications/diet etc) in order to keep the family intact. Which, interestingly enough, is the approach taken with white families. If anyone has ever had a concern with the children of white families being endangered by their parents, you’ll know already how difficult it is to convince the authorities to remove those children.

    FN children should be able to stay with their families in all situations except the most extreme (ie life threatening). Those families should receive education and support to learn the skills they need to care for their own children and the govt should provide the resources necessary for them to do that, especially when caring for special needs children (which is a challenge for anyone). When these children land up in foster care all of this support and monetary resources are provided to the foster family, per child, anyway. We’re already allocating these funds, just, in some cases, to the wrong family.

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  13. Terri

    Rather than editing this for length I am sharing it just as it was submitted to main stream media, because we all have to stop being led astray by the media and need to face the reality of what is happening province wide.

    The F word

    I have known for a long time, that occasionally the media will skew headlines and information to promote agendas and to increase sales. I have directly witnessed this on numerous occasions. However, this time I cannot and will not remain silent because this time their efforts are, at the very least, distracting from the real concerns.

    Let’s talk about the F word; a term so vile that is causes some people to become judgemental and make horrific assumptions – Foster care.

    As I write this, there are 11,539 children receiving various supports from Children’s Services in Alberta. Of these children 3,410 are living at home with one or more of their biological parents while 8,129 are living in care. The term “In care” means they could be in a kinship home, group home, living independently, waiting for an adoption to be finalized, in the PSECA program (protection against sexual exploitation), in hospital, in secure services, or in a foster home. For those of you big on data; 54% of those 8,129 individuals are in foster homes.

    Now that we’ve determined who we are talking about, let’s look at what the media is saying….
    “The investigation found 145 children have died in government care since 1999. The government has only publicized 56 deaths over that period.”
    “One in three children who dies in government care in Alberta is a baby, a startling figure given infants account for one in 10 children in care.”
    “Eighteen died in their sleep, often after a foster parent employed unsafe sleeping practices.”
    “Eight died by accident or homicide”

    The average person reading these statements does not have the knowledge of how tragically common it is for infants to die due to unsafe sleep habits, nor do they stop to think rationally about why the government does not publicize the deaths of children. Instead, they focus on the perception that government is hiding deaths and babies are dying because they were placed in care. I read it all differently and let me tell you why.

    My husband and I have been Foster Parents for 11 years. We have taken babies who were beaten, neglected, and/or severely ill, we helped them thrive so they could go back to family or go on to an adoption. We are very involved in the fostering community so we know that we are not some rare breed. In fact, most of the caregivers I know are intelligent, loving, qualified, individuals who have sacrificed much to provide for others.

    So, when I read that in 13.5 years 145 children, who were in the care of the government died, or that one third of children in care who die are infants, I want to know how this compares to the deaths of other Alberta children who were not in care. After a few minutes, Google provided all the statistics from the Alberta Government and Statistics Canada that I needed to give me some important details and here is what I found:
    A. The average number of deaths of children in Alberta is 400/year.
    So on average 390 Alberta children per year, who are not in care, die.
    B. On average 230 Alberta infants die per year. That equals an Alberta infancy death rate of 57.5% of total child mortalities.
    Between January 1999 and June 2013, 57 infants died. That equals 39.31% of the total deaths of children in care. Far lower than the provincial average.
    C. The provincial average of infants dying in their sleep is roughly 11% of total child mortalities per year. This means that on average, 44 infants a year die due to things like unsafe sleeping habits.
    Eighteen children in foster care over the last 13 years have died of the same cause. Again, far lower than provincial average.
    D. The provincial average of children who die due to accident/injury/homicide is 28.7% of the deaths for males and 21.6% for females. Unfortunately, I did not see a combined percentage.
    Tragically, there have been 8 children in care, over the last 13 years who have died under the same circumstances. To put it into a comparable percentage would be 5.5% of children in care who have died.

    At this point, I could be holier than thou and go on about how the numbers speak for themselves; that the spin the media is putting on these deaths is only to sell papers; about how so many children who come into care are saved from death by dedicated foster parents and a quality care system; that children are not dying simply because they have been put into care. However, at the end of the day none of that matters as much as the fact that all across Alberta children, in care or not, are dying needless deaths. THAT is where the focus needs to be.

    The spin the Edmonton Journal and other media are putting on these deaths is harmful, and the way the government oppositions are fighting over each other to try to gain political favor with Albertans is disgusting.

    At the very least, this province MUST:
    – Increase its efforts in FASD prevention and education because it is one of the leading causes of why so many children are ending up in care.
    – Continue its efforts in prevention and education of domestic violence and sexual exploitation
    – Recruit and support quality foster/kinship/adoptive homes
    – Increase funding to early childhood education
    – Reduce the prevalence of poverty and focus on the lasting impacts of poverty

    The real issues are being lost within the skewed and/or exaggerated reporting of our media. So always keep the truth in mind; children in Alberta are dying both in and out of care and we, as a community, need to pull together and make all our children a priority.

    Be part of the solution, contact your MLA and tell them you support Foster Parents, that you want more funds put into programs that directly enhance and that support all Alberta families, and that you do not want your tax dollars going towards more bureaucracy that will be put in place to give the appearance of open reporting.

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  14. Astonished

    The point in this entire report is that the these agencies refused to reveal this information publically. Any government or agency acting on behalf of it’s people should offer up total transparency.
    Advocates have been fighting for years to get more information to the public about what is happening to our children once the system gets involved. This information should not require private funds going towards acquiring what rightfully belongs to the people (information).
    Death attracts attention and if one reason why this story did get the attention and backing it got. People also want full disclosure of what is actually going on with in the system in regards to illegal activities, human rights violations, etc. along with the positives so the society can view the effectiveness of our system, see where we need reform and improve.
    A system that fights transparency has something to hide. A transparent system has no need for secrecy, gag orders, publication bans, abuse of FOIP laws or even arrest of people that stand up for others and seek the answers that everyone has been denied. Let it be seen. Let it be accountable. If there is nothing to fear.. then why the silence.. why the outrage… if the system did a good job it would stand proudly and proclaim it. People would then believe the system was for them.. not for the system being for itself. People demand transparency in their government and it’s agencies. It is no longer socially accepted to deny people access to information.

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