Fatal Care: Fighting for records in Alberta

By Karen Kleiss, for the Edmonton Journal

This project started in 2009 with a single question: How many children have died in provincial care?

By Karen Kleiss, for the Edmonton Journal

This project started in 2009 with a single question: How many children have died in provincial care?

It was a question Alberta journalists had been asking for more than a decade, and one the province would never answer. Figures in government annual reports didn’t match up with newspaper archives, and the medical examiner’s office refused to provide any numbers. It became apparent that the only way Albertans would ever learn how many children died was through a direct examination of the death records.

In November 2009, the Edmonton Journal submitted an access to information request for all records related to special case reviews conducted by the province into the death of a child in care, dating back to Jan. 1, 1999. At the time, we believed special case reviews were conducted after every child welfare death, that they were overseen by an internal body of experts and resulted in recommendations each time.

After an arduous negotiation process, the province released heavily censored copies of the death records. Most of the information was blacked out, including the child’s age, gender and ethnicity, the name of the agency and workers responsible for the child, and where the child died. In some cases, even the recommendations were deleted.

The Journal, believing that more information should have been released, appealed under Alberta’s freedom of information laws. The Journal argued that the secretive death investigation process prevented the public from scrutinizing government work in a crucial area and undermined the public’s ability to hold the child welfare system accountable.

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The provincial government argued that the children and their families have a right to privacy, and that other oversight protocols—such as fatality inquiries—provided sufficient information for public scrutiny.

The four-year legal battle ended in June 2013, when Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled that the need for public scrutiny outweighed some privacy protections. The adjudicator ordered the province to release all of the basic information the Journal had sought. In early September 2013, the province released 2,556 pages of death records for all of the children who died while receiving in-care services between Jan. 1, 1999 and June 8, 2013.

By then, the Calgary Herald had joined the project, and reporters from both newspapers combed through those documents, extracting key details and building Alberta’s first database to track children who died in provincial care.

They cross-referenced the internal ministry death records with lawsuits, news stories and criminal trial records, as well as fatality inquiry reports dating back to 1999, which had also been released after a fight with government officials.

However, there remain limitations to our investigation and the veracity of all of the data. Many of the records released by the provincial government were incomplete, so the Journal and the Herald had to extrapolate some information. For example, in some cases, the government did not provide a child’s age at time of death; instead they provided only the years of birth and death. In these cases, we calculated ages based on a birth and death date of Jan. 1, which results in imprecise ages. Likewise, in some cases, the cause or manner of death was not explicitly listed in the reports, but we were able to determine it through other information provided to us. We have made every effort to explain this in the database, and will do so in our stories in the series.

In the process of this investigation, we found only a fraction of deaths were subject to a special case review, and that some files contained little more than a single-page report indicating the child had died. We also learned that the ministry issued its final special case review in November 2009—the same month it received the Journal’s access to information request—when the government switched to an internal investigation process that produces no written recommendations.

As a result, Albertans can no longer use access to information laws to see internal ministry conclusions about what went wrong prior to a child’s death.

However, since the Journal submitted its request in 2009, the province has started providing a little more information about deaths-in-care in its annual reports; it now lists medical deaths as well as accidental deaths, and provides a brief description of the cause.

In early 2012, the provincial child and youth advocate was made independent from government, and now has the power to review deaths-in-care when systemic issues are at play. (He released two reports in 2013.) Similarly, the Ministry of Human Services’ internal quality assurance council, which was created in August 2011, has the power to review information about a limited subset of deaths.

Finally, in an interview in November 2013 for this series, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock pledged to set up a system for tracking the implementation of recommendations from reviews.

Read the full series: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/children-in-care/index.html.

This article was originally published in the Edmonton Journal and republished here with the author's permission. Photo courtesy of Newseum. 

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