Saskatchewan's Ministry of Social Services says 484 children over the past two decades have died while in close connection to the ministry, a CBC investigative team has learned.
The numbers dating to 1994 were released after a request from the iTeam. They cover children who have died while in care of the ministry, or within 12 months of having received services from its staff.
Such numbers were previously only provided to the Children's Advocate, and the office would often make the numbers public, though the reporting had been spotty and incomplete.
"It's not that we've made any deliberate decisions to not report publicly," explained Natalie Huber, executive director of service and program design with the ministry. "It's just not an area that we've tended to focus on at this point in time."
How did they die?
A third of the children died of natural causes, including sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Huber says that highlights the fact that children in care are often very vulnerable.
"These children have complex needs, medical needs, sometimes [they are] born addicted," she said.
Accidents are the second most noted cause of death among children in care, accounting for 149 deaths.
As well, over the 20 years, 66 children committed suicide and 38 were victims of homicide.
Of the 484 children who died, 114 of them were technically "in the care" of the ministry at the time of their deaths, in arrangements such as foster care or group homes.
The rest of the children died within 12 months of having received services from the ministry.
Poor case work a factor in deaths: Advocate
Saskatchewan Children's Advocate Bob Pringle says he has found a consistent and troubling theme while reviewing the child death cases.
"The common issue is: The quality of case management on pretty well every investigation we do is not adequate," Pringle told CBC News. "That's what went wrong."
He said the ministry has good policies and procedures for social workers, but they are not being followed consistently.
"That could be the lack of good supervision. It could be the workload demands. It could be an inexperienced worker. Or it could be a lack of training. It could be a lack of quality compliance," he said.
Pringle noted his office has been pushing for improvement in those areas for years.
He added that since 2009, things do seem to be getting better, but he's still not satisfied.
"Until the ministry can tell me — and put it in writing — that they're meeting their case planning standards in child care for children in care and their contact standards, then they cannot tell the public that children are safe in foster homes," he said. "I still do not have that in writing."
Social Services Ministry defends progress
Assistant Deputy Minister of Social Services Andrea Brittin acknowledged that ministry staff aren't always following policies as they should.
However, she insists that failure did not cause any deaths.
"In our overall review of child deaths, we haven't found evidence to suggest that the actions or inaction of a case worker directly contributed to the deaths of these children," Brittin said.
The ministry says it has reviewed all 484 child deaths and as a result has learned lessons and made changes.
For example, it began to notice a trend of deaths due to SIDS, so it changed a policy on safe sleeping arrangements, and educated families and caregivers.
The ministry also added more front-line workers and new tools to help them make better decisions about the care of children.
First Nations deaths went unreported
Huber pointed out the newly released data is incomplete because First Nations social services agencies were not consistently reporting the deaths of children in care.
The province had delegated responsibility for children in care on a reserve to 17 First Nations agencies.
From 1999 to 2007, those agencies reported a single death.
"Obviously an opportunity may have been lost around what changes might we make within our system to improve the services," says Huber.
However, she said that since 2008, the reporting requirements for First Nations agencies have been tightened up.
"We believe they're reporting completely now," she said.
The data on child deaths in Saskatchewan comes as Alberta is embroiled in controversy related to disclosure of relevant information on child deaths in government care.
The controversy had caught the attention of officials in Saskatchewan who are considering changes in disclosure.
"I think it causes myself to reflect on our own practise here and around our own reporting." Huber said.
She added she is talking with colleagues across the country about a national approach to publicly reporting data on the deaths of children in care.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan's Children's Advocate said he has a problem with some of the most recent information provided to him.
Pringle said he won't release the child death statistics held by his office for the years 2003 to 2007, saying, "I do not have confidence in those numbers."
However, he is considering going public with some of his reports on child deaths in Saskatchewan, saying it may be time to shed more light on what happens when a child dies in the care of government.
Replay the Saskatoon Morning live chat that looked at what Social Services should do to protect children in its care.