Government strengthening child protection services

The Alberta government is committing $1.5 million to support a new independent body that will strengthen child protection services in the province.

Moves follow report examining suspicious death of toddler

The Alberta government is committing $1.5 million to support a new independent body that will strengthen child protection services in the province.

Sarvia Elizabeth Velasquez died in May 2010. Police have ruled her death a homocide. (Family photo)

The Child and Family Services and Quality Assurance Council will receive notification of all deaths or serious injuries of children in the province's care and will determine when incidents need to be independently reviewed.

The move comes after a report was released Thursday that examined circumstances surrounding the suspicious death of Sarvia Elizabeth Velasquez in May 2010.

The report outlined a two-month series of events that lead to the death of Sarvia Elizabeth during which the 14-month-old toddler came under the attention of police, social services and doctors but remained with her caregivers.

Four broken bones in four limbs were diagnosed over that time.

In May, police declared her death a homicide after an autopsy found she died of asphyxia, but have yet to make an arrest. They say they have two suspects.

Killer will be arrested, police chief says

"The person responsible for the death of this child is a murderer," Calgary police Chief Rick Hanson told a news conference. He promised the girl's grandparents that the killer would eventually be arrested.

"I don't care how long it's going to take," Hanson said.

Alberta Children Services Minister Yvonne Fritz admitted at the news conference that the three systems — police, social workers and doctor — could have worked better for the little girl.

She said the government will accept recommendations made by the panel which authored the report, so that everyone can better work together to protect children.

The girl's grandfather shouted angry questions at the news conference about the report, but later said he had calmed down after meeting with the minister about his concerns.

"I'm not going to rant and rave about social services," he said. "I blame the killer."

The report identified deficiencies and poor communication among investigating bodies during the two-month probe, including inter-system barriers, delays and gaps in information gathering.

"What happened is we've got three separate systems that exist and within those three systems, we have processes that in this case did not interact as well as they should have," Hanson said.

"Systems have to be designed to work better together."

The government said it will accept all of the panel's recommendations.

"The panel reinforced that the safety and well-being of Alberta's children is a shared responsibility," said Fritz.

As part of those recommendations the government will provide a framework for increased collaboration between various provincial bodies.

"It is critical that child intervention, health and police services work more closely together to provide co-ordinated supports to Alberta's at-risk children, youth and families," she said.

NDP critic Rachel Notley said she found nothing of significance in the report and criticized its lack of detail.

"You can't ascertain exactly what happened and the recommendations defy any level of accountability," she said, renewing calls for the creation of an independent children's advocate in the province.

Fritz said the panel consisted of independent experts instead of government employees, and more external panels will be struck to review all critical incidents.

Need to keep electronic records

Some of the report's other recommendations include the need to create legislation that protects staff when discussing potential shortcomings during reviews and developing electronic record keeping at the Alberta Children and Youth Services.

The independent five-person panel, created in May 2011 and made of legal and health experts, also recommended the ACYS create a critical response plan in event of an accident or death.

The government said strengthened training and communication with provincial staff will help improve the tracking and reporting of serious incidents.

The province's Children and Youth Services came under fire in July when the biological mother of a four-month-old child said she would sue the government to get answers about her daughter who died in foster care.

At the time, critics said the incident highlighted Alberta's secretive approach to investigations involving deaths of children under the province's care.

With files from The Canadian Press