An Indigenous child-welfare agency reunited a troubled family despite multiple warnings of neglect and abuse, according to a three-year-old B.C. government internal review that has recently come to light. Six-year-old Dontay Lucas died at the hands of his mother and stepfather, just months after he was returned to their care.
Earlier this week, Dontay’s mother, Rykel Frank, and stepfather, Mitchell Frank, pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges for the boy’s death in 2018.
The trial heard that the Nuu-chah-nulth boy suffered horrific abuse before he died of blunt-force head trauma. The pair will be sentenced next May.
Usma Nuu-chah-nulth Family & Child Services, a delegated Aboriginal agency (DAA), was responsible for child-protection concerns involving the family in Port Alberni.
All deaths and critical injuries of children and youth in care are reviewed by B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development.
A summary of the 2020 review on Dontay’s death, obtained by The Globe and Mail, painted a troubling picture of Usma’s protection plan for the boy and his sibling, who was “impacted as a result of the death.”
The summary report was posted on a government website but not easily accessible to the public. It does not identify the boy but matches the circumstances of the case that emerged during the trial.
The report states: “The DAA supported a reunification plan for the children and the parents, gradually increasing their time together until, shortly before the child’s death, the children returned to their parents’ care.”
“During this period of reunification,” the report continues, “the DAA received multiple reports concerning neglect and abuse of the children while in their parents’ care; none of the reports were assessed or addressed according to policy, and the plan for reunification continued, leaving the children at risk of future harm.”
The report set out an “action plan” for the agency based on its failings in Dontay’s case.
Under that plan, Usma is required to self-audit its adherence to policy, create tools to support case documentation and clinical supervision, ensure care plans are current, and review options for care with its staff.
Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said the agency has implemented all the recommendations in the review.
“There were some deficiencies that have been addressed, to ensure none of this ever happened again,” Ms. Sayers said in an interview. “It’s been a transformation in many ways. There’s been a change in staff, and continual updates of policy.”
Usma, an agency of the tribal council, has improved its staff training and communication structures, she added, and it has reinforced public messaging on the duty to report when there are child-safety concerns.
Ms. Sayers had initially played down the role of the agency earlier this week. However, after being asked to respond to the report, she reviewed the details of the boy’s March, 2018, death, and agreed that there were problems, including miscommunications and a failure to follow up on complaints appropriately.
Shelly Johnson, a member of the Saulteaux First Nation and an associate professor of education and social work at Thompson Rivers University, said the ministry review points to “a catastrophic breakdown in practice and in policy” by Usma.
However, she said the larger issue is that child welfare is chronically underfunded in B.C. “It’s got to be the most underresourced and overburdened there is in this province,” she said.
For delegated agencies serving Indigenous families, she said, the problems are compounded because they have fewer resources, while dealing with deeply entrenched issues such as poverty and the damaging legacy of residential schools.
“The scale of operations between the ministry and delegated agencies is absolutely not equal,” Dr. Johnson said.
Although the details of Dontay’s death are disturbing, the number of children and youth in care who die or are critically injured in B.C. shows such incidents are far from rare. In 2020, the year that the ministry reviewed Dontay’s case, there were 35 other cases filed around the province. A number of those reviews reference similar circumstances, where child-protection concerns did not receive consistent responses.
“Until government decides that enough Indigenous children have died,” Dr. Johnson said, “then children will continue to die and the blood for that will be on the hands of the politicians who make the decisions about the budgets for children and families.”
The delegated Aboriginal agencies were set up to allow Indigenous communities to reclaim historical responsibilities for child protection and family support, because Indigenous children and youth are vastly overrepresented in the child-welfare system.
Children and Family Development Minister Mitzi Dean said in an interview that the ministry has been working to improve services.
“Some of the things that we have learned from reviews that we have done internally is, for example, that we needed more oversight,” she said.
“So we’ve made changes to policy and practice to make sure that front-line workers are supported in being able to meet and fulfill the standards that we expect of them.”