Report on Alberta girl’s death highlights need for overhaul of child welfare system: advocates

Report on Alberta girl’s death highlights need for overhaul of child welfare system: advocates

A day after the publication of a scathing review examining how Alberta’s child welfare system failed a four-year-old girl who died in care, some family advocates say it shows the need to acknowledge the status quo is unacceptable .

“It’s not working,” Lynne Marshalsay said Thursday.

The Medicine Hat-based founder of Preserved Families, a support group for people associated with Alberta Children’s Services, said she believes child welfare in the province is permeated with systemic racism, unfairly affecting Indigenous and low-income families.

“We have to tear down this whole system,” Marshalsay said. “The system cannot be repaired…we need a complete overhaul.”

READ MORE: Death Inquiry report investigating death of Alberta girl known as Serenity released

A deaths inquiry report released Wednesday made 20 recommendations to improve Alberta’s child protection system after reviewing the circumstances that led to the 2014 death of an Indigenous girl named Serenity.

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While Serenity died of a brain injury after falling off a swing set at her guardians’ home in Maskwacis, Alta, the report noted that “what led to her death began the day she was removed from her mother’s care.” “.

According to the 117-page document, the main reason Serenity was taken away from her mother was the domestic violence her mother endured at the hands of her partner.

Serenity was emaciated and weighed 25 pounds when she died.

“There is no indication in any of the records that Serenity was not properly cared for while she was in … (the) care of her mother,” Alberta Judge Renee Cochard wrote in the report.

Cochard also pointed out that a number of child welfare workers have failed in their mandate to always put children’s interests first, that there is insufficient communication between different individuals and organizations in both the health and child welfare sectors, and found this warning signs of possibly insufficient or negligent care were ignored or acted improperly.

Cochard’s 20 recommendations included that Children’s Aid should support young Indigenous mothers and make the removal of children from the home “only as a last resort,” that medical examiners’ reports be completed “timely” and within six months of a death, “to bring families closure and avoid misunderstandings,” that a child’s birth parents should have immediate access to legal aid through legal aid when their child is first taken away from them, and that attorneys representing birth parents should be available , should have access to the same disclosure documents as the children’s advocate.

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“The judge gave us some good insights into the legal protections of the family,” said Peter Choate, a professor of social work at Mount Royal University. “The judge also told us not to rush into permanent guardianship.”

Choate, who sat on a child intervention panel after Serenity’s death in 2018, said he believes the report highlighted the importance of the system giving more time to assess a child’s psychological and medical development when making decisions about their care will.

Choate said the report suggested the system sometimes works harder to protect itself than children and their families, adding, “That’s a pretty harsh criticism.”

“The judge’s comments indicate some dramatic changes,” he noted. “The judge specifically told us that the status quo doesn’t work.

“This is a child who should not have been in foster care. This is a system that didn’t take proper care of this kid.”

High number of indigenous children in the child welfare system

Choate added that for decades, about seven out of 10 children in the child welfare system are Indigenous, a clear sign that something is wrong with the practice.

Bill C-92, federal government legislation aimed at giving Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit people more autonomy in the provision of child welfare services, is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada.

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Mark Cherrington, a social justice advocate with the Coalition for Justice and Human Rights, said he believes First Nations and other Indigenous peoples have taken significant steps to build their own child welfare systems since Serenity’s death.

“(This report) has really pushed child welfare across the abyss,” he said. “That was the last nail in the coffin.

“I can see that this is the beginning of the end for the child welfare system as we know it.”

“Personally, I find the childcare system very patronizing, I find it colonial, I find it anti-community. I find that there is a lot of staff turnover within the child care system… The child care system is broken.”

READ MORE: “Breathing Our Own Laws to Life”: Visions for the Future of Indigenous Child Welfare in BC

Cherrington, who said he is currently working with the Dene Nation to help them set up their own child welfare system, said the reason so many Indigenous children are being cared for is not because of Indigenous families.

“It’s because of the boarding school, it’s because of colonialism, it’s because of the way we’ve treated Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit children and families over the past 150 years,” he said. “We need to embrace that and we need to support our First Nations … who are moving towards that.

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“I think it will be a good day when this transition is complete.”

Cherrington said even as First Nations assert their autonomy in managing children’s best interests, the government still has a role to play in ensuring these systems receive financial support and capacity help.

‘Big-think types of change’

Secretary of State for Child Care Mickey Amery issued a statement after Cochard’s report was released, saying the Alberta government would continue to work to improve the system in the future and would review the judge’s recommendations. He also said that “significant changes have been made to prevent this tragedy from repeating itself,” noting the Serenity Act passed in 2019 that expands reporting capabilities related to child welfare.

With Alberta in an election year, Choate said he fears the issues raised by the report could slip through the cracks because he calls for “big changes”.

“The province needs to commit to a very fundamental overhaul of legislation, commitments to indigenous children and changes in practice,” he said. “It’s a big step, but the judge is really asking us to do it.

“If you want to change, you can’t tinker. Tinkering didn’t work.”

2:11 Calls for changes to the child welfare system following damning reports of the death of an Indigenous child

Cherrington said he believes those in power in Alberta’s child welfare system “still aren’t listening to their frontline workers.”

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“You take an idea and you hold on to that narrative no matter what,” he said.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement in their system and it’s the same things that people have been telling them for the last 30 years. And they don’t listen.”

The Alberta Child and Youth Advocate’s office told Global News on Thursday that it was difficult to comment on the report because “our law prohibits our employees from providing the name or identifying information about a child subject to our investigation, or a parent or guardian of the child”.

“We have received a copy of the deaths inquiry report and are currently reviewing it,” OCYA said. “We have four months to respond to the recommendations affecting our office.”

2:20 Alberta judge makes recommendations after death of Indigenous girl “Serenity” in foster care

Marshalsay expressed concern that some of the child welfare workers whose actions appeared to be criticized in Cochard’s report were still working in the system and asked if they had made any changes. She believes more training is needed.

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“A lot of the problem is management,” she said, describing some in leadership positions as “old-school players” who have not all embraced new ways of thinking about childcare work.

Marshalsay said the problems are also linked to the justice system, as government attorneys earn far more than attorneys, who often represent families, making it more difficult for families to successfully represent their cases in court.

She said it was important for the provincial government to meet with families affected by the system so that the provincial government could make the necessary changes. She also noted that more public awareness of the issues is needed.

“There’s this mentality that when your kids go into care there’s a reason for that and you have to be a terrible person and not do anything to change — and that’s not the case.”

–With files by Dan Grummett and Heather Yourex-West, Global News

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