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An Indigenous boy who died at the hands of his mother and stepfather had been returned to them because child welfare agency workers were confident she had made improvements to her life and saw no warnings he was being harmed, the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president says.

However, audits conducted by B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development show that Usma, the Nuu-chah-nulth agency that was responsible for six-year-old Dontay Lucas, met the ministry’s own standards barely half of the time.

Dontay’s mother, Rykel Frank, and stepfather, Mitchell Frank, pleaded guilty to manslaughter on Monday. Dontay died in March, 2018, four months after he was returned to them. It took four years before the RCMP laid charges – which were initially for first-degree murder – against the couple.

According to a report in the Times Colonist newspaper, the court heard the boy died of severe blunt force head trauma, after suffering months of horrific abuse while in his mother’s care.

Nuu-chah-nulth president Judith Sayers does not directly run Usma but holds political accountability for the agency. She said in an interview Tuesday with The Globe and Mail that case workers determined that Ms. Frank had worked to get her son returned to her care. The Ministry of Children and Family Development reviewed the agency’s decisions after the boy died, she added.

“They didn’t find fault with Usma for returning the child home,” Ms. Sayers said.

She said the couple’s decision to plead guilty to manslaughter was a relief to her community.

“Is this justice? Well, finally the people that are responsible for his death are in jail, and they’ll continue to be in jail. They’ll be sentenced in May, hopefully for a good amount of time,” Ms. Sayers said. “People were heartbroken that the couple got to live free for all those years and do whatever they wanted to do, while the Crown and the police were doing the investigation.”

Indigenous children and youth make up a disproportionate number of those in care in B.C., and the province has turned over responsibilities to Indigenous Child and Family Service agencies such as Usma for many of those kids.

The ministry conducts internal audits of those agencies, which have identified deficiencies within the province’s largest Indigenous child welfare agencies. In a 2019 audit, a year after Dontay was killed, the ministry found Usma’s overall compliance with child service standards was 56 per cent. The audit did not single out Dontay’s case, but based the review on an audit of 77 child service records.

The findings note that Usma had a poor record for developing care plans for its wards, with just 14-per-cent compliance, and the agency rarely met requirements for a social worker’s private contact with the children or youth in care.

“Documentation of the social workers’ private contacts with children/youth in care met the standard in 1 of the 77 records,” the report says. “Of the 76 records rated not achieved, 12 did not have confirmations that the children and youth had visits of any kind with their social workers.”

Mizti Dean, the Minister of Children and Family Development, said in an interview Tuesday she cannot speak to the specifics of Dontay’s case prior to sentencing, which is set for May. Speaking generically about the audit process, she said her ministry is aware of needed improvements.

British Columbia is now overhauling its child-welfare system to allow First Nations to assume complete control over the care of their children. Under that new structure, the provincial government will no longer audit or oversee the welfare of children in the care of Indigenous governing bodies. Nor will it investigate deaths of children in their care.

Usma remains under the existing structure, which still allows the province’s Representative for Children and Youth to launch a full investigation now that criminal proceedings are complete. However in a statement, Representative Jennifer Charlesworth said Tuesday that her office will not take on that investigation, in part because of the potential further harm and trauma it could cause to family and community.

A BC Coroners Service investigation into Dontay’s death remains open.

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