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