Three First Nations children who spent most of their lives in foster care but died after returning to their parents' care were failed by the Alberta government, according to the province's child and youth advocate.
Del Graff's 61-page investigative report details the lives and deaths of the three children. The report argues the cases highlight the shortcomings in Alberta's child-welfare system, leaving parents with histories of domestic violence, substance abuse and other problems, without support when they are reunited with their kids.
Sarah was five when she died from damage to internal organs, a head injury and multiple bruising. Anthony was two when he died after a cardiac arrest and unexplained brain and spine injuries. Mikwan was one he died of complications tied to acute blunt head trauma. The children spent the majority of their lives in Alberta's foster-care system before being reunited with members of their biological families. All three of their respective mothers were subsequently charged in their deaths.
Alberta's Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (OCYA) argued "systemic issues" contributed to the trio's experiences and that the government inadequately supports parents before and after their children return to their care. Biological family members may check the necessary boxes – completing parenting classes, securing housing, and staying sober, for example – to qualify for reunification, but are unable to provide continued stability when their children come home. And kids will remain in danger unless the government addresses this social shortcoming, the OCYA said.
"These three circumstances were all such that there was such a clear indicator that these parents had done A, B and C, and they needed support to maintain those gains," Mr. Graff, said in an interview on Tuesday. "And those supports weren't planned for or in place."
Alberta, he said, lacks a "sufficient framework" to provide the help necessary to ensure a smooth reunification transition and that it is a "systemic" problem. "Reunifying children with their parents is a new phase of involvement, not an ending," the report says.
Further, when children with special needs return home, they must still be able to access social programs available to them when they were in the foster system, the OCYA said. Without continued support, the pressure on parents when reunited with their children is amplified. "Special needs don't stop because they move from foster care to family care," Mr. Graff said Tuesday.
The Alberta government on Tuesday said it accepts the OCYA's recommendations that the province improve its foster care transition process, make sure parents and children are better monitored and supported after their families are made whole, and that kids still participate in health, education and social programs comparable to what they accessed prior to reunification. Sarah Hoffman, Alberta's deputy premier, on Tuesday argued the government is already taking action.
In four of seven Alberta regions, she said, parents and children have access to extra support for 12 months prior to reunification. "We will be working towards expanding this program throughout the province," she said in a statement. (A spokesperson for Alberta's Minister of Indigenous Relations declined to comment on the report, directing an interview request to Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee's office. Ms. Hoffman spoke on her behalf Tuesday).
The federal government has jurisdiction over on-reserve programs. This, critics argue, creates a funding disparity compared with cash available for kids who do not live on reserves who have access to greater funding from the provincial government. Ms. Hoffman said her government intends to ask Alberta's Ministerial Panel on Child Intervention to find a way to close that gap. Kids in need should have access to the best available services regardless of where they live, she said, and the province and the federal government can fight over the bills later.
"These kids deserve every protection that children in any community would receive," Ms. Hoffman told reporters. "I know that's a federal responsibility, but these children deserve justice."
Sarah, Anthony and Mikwan, are pseudonyms the OCYA used to protect their privacy. Their parents' names were also changed in the report for privacy reasons. The children passed away between 2014 and 2015. The cases were reviewed as a collective because they shared similar circumstances, the report said. The OCYA also noted themes that emerged in their cases are similar to the death of a nine-month-old girl the advocate reported on last fall. Tuesday's report noted not all previously-issued recommendations tied to children in care have been implemented.