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Family devastated after child’s death in foster care

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on Tue, 02/25/2014 - 16:42
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Family devastated after child’s death in foster care

Foster child dies after concerns - Parents bury baby boy

Standing in front of a tiny white casket, a mother and father hugged each other and reluctantly said goodbye to their baby boy.

Janelle McKenzie and Winston Black buried their 10-month-old son Friday following a funeral service at the reserve hall, located about 40 kilometres north of Prince Albert. Flowers, cards and pictures of Richie Spencer Earl McKenzie-Black sat on a table near the casket at the front of the hall.

Nearby, some of Richie's clothes, blankets and books were spread across another table. As is their tradition, those who knew Richie each picked out an item to keep and remember him by.

Baby Richie died Feb. 15, exactly 10 months after his birth on April 15. Richie was in foster care at the time of his death and an investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death is underway by the Ministry of Social Services.

McKenzie had previously voiced concerns about her children's care in a foster home in a Feb. 14 story in the Prince Albert Daily Herald, saying her three-yearold son Winston had severe diaper rash and bruising on his buttocks.

The cause of Richie's death has not been released. An autopsy has been ordered.

McKenzie says she's certain Richie would still be alive if he had been allowed to stay in the care of his parents. She said she was told her baby and Winston were being placed in foster care because Richie had lost a pound and McKenzie's methadone levels were too high.

McKenzie and Black are both working to overcome addictions and are close to completing their drug treatment plans. McKenzie said she had family close by who often came to visit and support the family.

"He was never sick when he was in my care (and) I have all these questions," McKenzie said Friday following Richie's funeral service. "My baby didn't deserve this."

Richie had been hospitalized previously. At six months old, while in foster care, he spent a month and a half in hospital with a head injury. McKenzie said she and her common-law husband weren't told for more than three days then that their young son was in hospital.

The parents were told Richie had pneumonia at first, but after about a month in the hospital, he had a 45-minute-long seizure.

"How does a baby get bleeding on the skull at six months old?" Richie had been in foster care since he was three months old. Winston was placed in foster care with him after a social worker visiting the home determined McKenzie was unfit to care for the children.

McKenzie said the worker visited her home while the kids were napping and she was also very tired. She admits to dozing off during the meeting, but said the home was clean and well equipped with enough diapers, food in the fridge and toys for all the kids.

"I didn't deserve to get my life taken away ... I had everything I wanted and needed and more and for somebody to have the power to take my life away from me in one day, it's not fair," McKenzie said.

"I just felt like I was targeted, like they weren't going to leave me alone." McKenzie said her family was later evicted from their home because the kids were no longer in her care and her social assistance payments were cut off. One night, McKenzie overdosed after taking four bottles of methadone and was hospitalized for two weeks.

The Ministry of Social Services will conduct an internal review to find out what led to the child's death, said Natalie Huber, executive director of child and family services.

Social Services will meet with the foster parents, biological parents, the child's case worker and other individuals who have worked with the families.

If there were concerns about the care being provided in the foster home, it could be the subject of a formal investigation, she said. Other children in the home could be removed during such an investigation, she said.

Police could become involved if there are concerns of a criminal nature, she said.

The review "includes findings and recommendations that inform our ministry in a broader sense, around changes to perhaps our policy; could be changes to inform training or just changes overall to our practice," Huber said.

Figures released earlier this year showed 10 children died while in foster care in 2012 and in the first 11 months of 2013.

"There has been some deaths reported," in the two-and-a-half months since then, Huber said Friday. She declined to provide numbers or any other information lest it identify the children.

Lisa Broda of the Office of the Children's Advocate said the news of another death was upsetting.

"We're always deeply concerned when we get notification of a child's death. We take these very seriously ... We assess every single case that comes through our office."

The family continues to struggle with the news of Richie's death, but are coping. Winston is now back in the care of his parents.

His father says his young namesake is the only thing keeping him sane while the family grieves.

Winston Sr. stayed behind Friday while most of the mourners attended a graveside service following the funeral to play with his son and comfort him. The two played hide and seek and spent some time outside while waiting for the rest of their family to return.

"If it wasn't for him, I'd probably be drinking right now or apprehended right now," Winston Sr. said.

Last week, Janelle McKenzie, a mother who had her two young children taken away from her and put in foster care, was concerned for her children’s safety and health while in the foster care system.

Over the weekend, the McKenzie and her family were told their 10-month old baby died in foster care.

The news came as a shock to the family, who spent time with the baby last Wednesday.

Click HERE for a story the Daily Herald wrote about this situation, last week.

“I had all of my children together on Wednesday and he was really beautiful,” McKenzie said. “He was such a nice baby and didn’t hardly ever cry.”

When McKenzie spoke to the Daily Herald last week, she said she didn’t know why her kids were taken away about six to seven months ago, since they were healthy, happy and in a good home.

“They took my baby away because he lost a pound and my methadone was too high,” McKenzie said. “My methadone co-ordinator knew that all I needed was time. I didn’t deny my methadone was too high because it was.”

She said her addiction was under control, so it didn’t make sense why her foster care case worker would decide to take her children away.

Since her children were taken away, life has been rough for McKenzie and her partner Winston Black.

“We went from having everything one day to having nothing the next day,” McKenzie said. “It was really hard to accept.”

She also felt her children were not being properly taken care of in the foster home, after the baby had to be admitted to the hospital at six months old.

“He was in the hospital for a month and a half,” McKenzie said. “When he was in the hospital, they did an MRI and it showed he had bleeding between the brain and the skull.”

When she told Social Services she didn’t want her children in that home anymore, they told her they would see what they could do.

On Saturday, McKenzie received a call that her baby was once again in the hospital.

“This time, his lungs kept filling up with blood,” McKenzie said. “The doctor said his lungs were filling up so fast he couldn’t breathe. It kept getting worse.”

“I want to know where all the blood came from,” Black added.

The family wants answers and they are waiting for the results of an autopsy to tell them what killed their baby.

“I don’t understand why he is gone -- he was such a happy baby,” McKenzie said, trying to hold back tears. “I don’t understand. I just want my baby back. I just want him back.”

“I just miss him so much and I don’t want him to be gone,” she added. “I really think if he would have been home with us, he wouldn’t be gone today.”

Although McKenzie was on methadone when she was pregnant with the baby, studies have shown the drug is considered safe for pregnant women, so that should not have had an effect on the baby’s health.

McKenzie believes the foster home where her children were was too crowded and said they had several young children, other adults and some animals at the house.

“That would be a lot for two people,” she said. “How much time do you have?”

Since the baby’s death, McKenzie and Black have had their three-year-old boy with them.

“He keeps asking where his brother is,” McKenzie said. “I don’t know how to tell him. They were so close.”

When a child dies in foster care, the Ministry of Social Services said, an internal review process will take place.

“Upon notification that the child has died in foster care, we actually begin our review process,” said Natalie Huber, the executive director of child and family services for the Ministry of Social Services. “We have an internal review process here. We have a team of quality assurance analysts who go out and conduct a child death review on the circumstances that led to a child’s death and the services that were provided to the child leading up to their death.”

It is a very comprehensive review, Huber said, and the biological parents of the child are immediately notified.

“We also refer to, wherever possible, advise the family in person to offer our condolences and whatever supports we can to the family,” Huber said. “It might be some counselling supports, supports in the community that might be available as well. We make sure we try to engage with families as soon as possible or immediately following the notification of death.”

During the review process, Social Services would meet with the foster parents, biological parents, the child’s case worker and other individuals who have worked with either the foster family or biological family.

“It is really looking at the circumstances that lead to the child’s death and the circumstances that we were providing to both the family and the child during their time of involvement with the Ministry of Social Services,” Huber said. “The purpose of our review is really to determine if there is any concerns around the services we were providing and if there are some learnings we can take away from the very tragic event to help improve our services going forward.

“We do that very comprehensive review that includes findings and recommendations that inform our ministry in a broader sense, around changes to perhaps our policy, could be changes to informed training or just changes overall to our practice,” Huber said. “We would assess the circumstances that lead to child’s death.”

Outside of the review, Huber said, they would want to immediately understand the circumstances that lead to the child’s death.

“If there were concerns related to the care that the child was provided then a formal investigation may be required of the foster home and the children -- could be the sibling or other children -- in the home could be removed from the home to conduct that investigation or finalization of that investigation,” Huber said.

Since Social Services also want to know why a child in care has died, an autopsy is ordered and performed by the Chief Coroner’s office.

“That is done by an independent office and the chief medical examiner would conduct an autopsy and determine the cause of death and notify the ministry,” Huber said. “That is part of review process is to gather any information coming from the chief medical examiner following their review. They do a review more medical in nature just to determine the cause of death.”

In cases where there are concerns of a criminal nature, the police will also become involved.

“They may be conducting an investigation and information may be coming to us as well that would be complied and pulled into our review process as well,” Huber said.

Unless there were concerns around the care children are receiving in a foster home, other children in that home will remain there.

“Each case is really assessed based on the individual circumstances but we wouldn’t typically just remove a sibling group from the home due to that particular incident occurring,” Huber said.

Social Services also offers support to both the foster family and the biological family when a child dies in care.

“We would want to work with the foster parents and ensure we are providing them with the necessary supports,” Huber said. “We would want to make sure if they need some time to grieve or respite or babysitting services to allow them to attend to their own personal needs, we would want to provide for that as well.

“At the same time as we are supporting the biological family and providing the necessary supports there at the same time we are working really closely with the foster families to support them and provide whatever they might need to work through and to support them through this very difficult situation,” she added.

McKenzie is glad she had visits with her baby, but wishes things would have turned out differently.

“It was so beautiful to have my children together for that last day,” she said. “If I knew that was going to be the last day I would have done things so much differently.”

By Charlene Tebbutt and Betty Ann Adam, The Starphoenix, Prince Albert Daily Herald