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'It's shocking': Opposition asks why children are still living in Serenity foster home

Evidence that children are still residing the home where an Alberta toddler incurred deadly injuries is proof that the provincial child welfare system is dangerously broken, says the official opposition.

'If something happens to those children right now, I think it's the government's fault'

Serenity was four years old when she died of severe head trauma in an Edmonton hospital. (Supplied)

Evidence that children are still living in the home where a little Alberta girl suffered fatal injuries is proof the provincial child welfare system is dangerously broken, says the official opposition.

"It's shocking, the idea that there still could be children in a situation where another child paid the most extreme consequence, and has lost their life," said Jason Nixon, the Wildrose Opposition representative on an Alberta child intervention panel charged with addressing internal problems with child welfare.

"As a father, it just breaks my heart."

Nixon said since the all-party child task force was formed last year, the NDP government has stonewalled any attempts by opposition and panel members to ask hard questions about the circumstances surrounding the death of four-year-old Serenity.

"If children are in that same home, that same environment, it's the government's responsibility to make sure they're safe," he said. "And if something happens to those children right now, I think it's the government's fault."

'What is the point of her panel?'

Nixon said it's difficult see how useful it is for the panel to spend months talking about the issue when the government is clearly failing in its duty to keep children safe.

"That's what I intend on asking the minister," he said. "What is the point of her panel if we can't get to the bottom of something as tragic as what happened to Serenity, and ensure other children aren't being hurt in the same way?"

The political debate around the now-infamous case was re-ignited Monday when CBC News reported that underage relatives of Serenity's one-time foster parents still live in the family home.

The children include two infants, two young children in elementary school and two teenagers under 18.

Serenity was living in a kinship care arrangement on a central Alberta reserve when she was admitted to Edmonton hospital in September 2014 with horrific injuries.

She weighed only 18 pounds. Her skull was fractured and her body was covered in lacerations and purple contusions. There were signs of sexual assault.

Hypothermic and suffering from a horrific brain injury, Serenity was put into a coma, and a week later was taken off life-support.
This photo of Serenity, taken by her mother, shows how thin the 4-year-old had become. She died several days after this photo was taken in September 2014. (Supplied)

The little girl and her two siblings were apprehended from the home, but the other children were not, several community and family members say.

The all-party panel was created after it was revealed there had been little action in the case, despite repeated complaints from Serenity's birth mother that her child was being abused.

Until the details of Serenity's death are revealed, and a gag order on fatality cases is lifted, Nixon said he fears that other children will fall through the cracks.

Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee has declined to comment directly on the case, citing privacy laws and the ongoing RCMP investigation. The case has been in the hands of Crown prosecutors since last year.

'The state makes a pretty lousy parent'

A sworn affidavit from a child welfare worker, filed in provincial court in September 2014, said significant evidence of abuse was found in the kinship home. Serenity's siblings reported being beaten with coat hangers, and said they were regularly denied food.

The welfare worker recommended custody of Serenity and her siblings be transferred immediately back to their biological mother, but made no mention of the other children's welfare.

A failure to protect Serenity and her siblings is proof of a chronically under-funded system that disproportionately fails, and discriminates against, Indigenous children, said Cindy Blackstock, executive director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society.

In a landmark ruling last year, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal concluded that the federal government discriminates against First Nation children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere.

Blackstock acknowledged the disturbing nature of Serenity's death and the need for a thorough review of the foster family home. But she noted that apprehending children from their biological families should be a last resort.

'Tragedy after tragedy'

"I've talked to thousands of kids who have grown up in child welfare," Blackstock said. "The state makes a pretty lousy parent.

"There is this public idea that we remove these kids from their families and we put them somewhere better, and that should be the contract. When we remove a child from their family we should offer them a chance at a better life, but too often … we continue to see these tragedies unfold."

Blackstock said the work of child welfare panels and fatality inquiries is important but too often their recommendations do not lead to changes.

"On its face, it seems to represent many of the sad situations that I've seen happen in the past and across the country, where an under-funded child welfare system becomes overwhelmed," she said.

"We see these same recommendations being recycled tragedy after tragedy, and at some point the child welfare system, and the federal government, needs to be held accountable."