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Fatalities of children in care symbolic of broken system

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on Fri, 04/20/2012 - 18:42

EDMONTON - Over the past decade, children apprehended by the Alberta government have been almost twice as likely to die as children in the general population, according to numbers made public for the first time Wednesday.

That’s a painful number for people who feel like their children are trapped in the system.

It “scares the hell out of me. I’m more concerned about him dying than anything else,” said Scott, a 24-year-old from the Edmonton area whose infant son was apprehended one month ago.

“There shouldn’t be any deaths. They should have way less injuries because (child care workers) are supposed to have all this extra training,” said Scott, who can’t be identified under Alberta law.

Scott is fighting for access through the courts. His son was apprehended at a hospital after he and the boy’s mother brought him in, concerned he wasn’t keeping food down.

The numbers of deaths of children in care since 1999, both medical and accidental, were released to the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees under a freedom of information request.

About 10 children die in care on average each year, a rate of 0.08 per cent. That compares to 0.05 per cent for the general population aged under 18, as tracked by Alberta Health and Wellness.

Prior to this year, the provincial government had refused to release statistics on all child deaths in care, listing only those who died of serious injuries.

Guy Smith, president of the AUPE, said the number of deaths highlights broken system where too much responsibility has been contracted out, especially since the system was restructured in the mid-1990s.

“There’s way more potential for children to fall through the cracks,” Smith said. “When (the child welfare system is) not fully public, the lines of accountability get blurred.”

Front line staff are underpaid, see a high turnover, and have few ways to advocate for changes when they see substandard care, especially since contracted staff aren’t unionized, Smith said. “Advocacy and the ability to speak up is so important for people on the front line.”

But the numbers of deaths does not show an increase or decrease over time, and Jean Lafrance, a former child advocate, said blaming contracting out of services is too simplistic. “There are issues around case loads, issues around the complexity of the system,” said Lafrance, a University of Alberta professor who now works with community groups to help families navigate the system.

Government case workers spend the majority of their time on paperwork, leaving those with less training to work on the front lines, he said. For the parents, “we tend to give them a lot of hoops to jump through, never addressing the core problem.”

Mark Hattori, assistant deputy minister for Alberta Human Services, said contracting out has nothing to do with the death rate.

“The kids we serve are already in what we consider a vulnerable population,” Hattori said. “Sometimes kids coming into our care already sustained an injury.”

He gave the example of a shaken baby who dies within days of being taken into care.

Other children are exposed to drugs or alcohol in the womb, resulting in heart abnormalities and other problems, and still others have genetic disorders, he said. “Parents are unable or unwilling to care for these kids, then they die (as children in our care).”

Over the past three years, the department has been signing larger contracts, giving community organizations responsibility for all families in a sub-region through a project called “outcomes-based service delivery.”

They will evaluate that project in one year, said Hattori, and children’s safety will be part of the review.

estolte@edmontonjournal.com

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By Elise Stolte, edmontonjournal.com