A top government official in the Alberta Children and Youth Services Department was sentenced Tuesday to eight days in jail for contempt of court.

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Richard Ouellet, a director in the Alberta Children and Youth Services Department, speaks with a CBC reporter in 2008. ((CBC))

Alberta Court of Appeal Justice Jean Côté said Richard Ouellet, a director in the department, could avoid going to jail if he completes 40 hours of community service.

Ouellet was convicted of contempt in June for failing to return a child in government care to his original foster family, after a court had ordered him to do so.

Côté last month refused Ouellet's request to throw out the conviction.

'Mr. Ouellet might well have gone out the courtroom by a different door.'—Justice Jean Côté

In Tuesday's sentencing, Côté said the community work must be for an Alberta charitable organization or municipal government and cannot be in the area of child protection.

"I found no wilful or improper intent by Mr. Ouellet," the justice wrote in a six-page decision, noting that Ouellet was "very careless and possibly poorly advised."

The justice also ordered Ouellet to pay the legal costs for the lawyer who represented the foster mother throughout the contempt hearings.

The child was returned to his foster mother a day before the contempt of court hearing, and the judge said if that had not happened, "Mr. Ouellet might well have gone out the courtroom by a different door."

A government spokesperson said the message from the courts has been heard loud and clear.

"As a Ministry, we believe in the importance of complying with court orders and we will be taking steps to ensure this doesn't happen again. We are working with [the department of] Justice to review our procedures and protocols around this to make sure this isn't going to happen again," said Stuart Elson, Alberta Children Services spokesperson. 

Ouellet has been removed from his director's position and temporarily reassigned. He is on holidays until the end of August and could not be reached for comment.