New bill would require investigations of all deaths of children in provincial care

Every case of an Alberta child who dies in government care would have to be investigated by the office of the Child and Youth Advocate under new legislation introduced Tuesday.

Changes based on recommendations from an all-party child intervention panel

Danielle Larivee discusses Bill 18, the Child Protection and Accountability Act, which proposes mandatory investigations into deaths of children in care. 1:15

Every case of an Alberta child who dies in government care would have to be investigated by the office of the Child and Youth Advocate under new legislation introduced Tuesday.

Bill 18, the Child Protection and Accountability Act, would require the advocate to complete each investigation within 12 months, and update the legislature on delayed and incomplete investigations every six months.

The legislation would also compel government ministries, delegated First Nations agencies and police to proactively disclose relevant information to the advocate.

Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee said information sharing will be enabled by a new protocol intended to alter the culture of privacy around the deaths of children in care.  

"The proactive disclosure piece is huge in terms of highlighting the fact that information sharing is as important, or more important sometimes, as the privacy piece is," Larivee said.

"So saying that, 'Hey, not only is it important that you share information, you are mandated to share information.' "

However, the bill contains no penalties for anyone who fails to disclose information.

The advocate would have to seek an injunction from Court of Queen's Bench to compel information from recalcitrant parties.

Del Graff, the current child and youth advocate, said the change has the potential to help. Currently, information is not provided unless he makes a request. He also can't ask for it unless he knows that it's there. 

"My hope is that it will help us, " Graff said of the changes. "It will help us both in terms of the timeliness of information and in the completeness of information we receive." 

Asked if the law would change the culture of privacy described by Larivee, Graff called it a step in the process.

"Whether or not that materializes, we'll know in the fullness of time, " he said. 

Changes in the bill are based on recommendations made by an all-party committee looking for ways to improve the investigations of deaths of children in care.

A mandatory requirement to investigate all deaths of children and teens in care is a first for Alberta, Larivee said.

Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon says change in how deaths of children in care will only happen with time and through pressure from his party. 0:19

Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon, who sits on the child intervention panel, said he was pleased Larivee incorporated the panel's findings into the legislation.

But Nixon said he is concerned about what will happen to recommendations that don't require a change to the law. 

"I would love to take the ministry at its word that changes will be made," Nixon said. "But only time will tell, with significant pressure from the opposition."

Address gaps in system

The legislation is intended to address gaps in the system that were revealed by the case of Serenity, the four-year-old Indigenous girl who died of head injuries while in a kinship care home. 

She weighed only 18 pounds at the time of her death in September 2014.  Her skull was fractured and her body was covered in lacerations and purple contusions. Her body also showed signs of sexual assault.

No one has been charged in her death. The case, which remains under investigation by the RCMP, has been plagued by delays. The child's autopsy took two years to complete but a copy was not provided to Graff while he was reviewing the circumstances of her death. 

The RCMP didn't receive Serenity's case file from the former Human Services ministry until early December. 

The bill has a provision that would require the medical examiner to advise the child and youth advocate about a death within 30 days. 

Police or the Crown could delay a report by the advocate if it imperiled an ongoing investigation, but that request must be made in writing and renewed every six months.

Government will have to publicly respond to recommendations made by the advocate within 75 days.

Families would be involved in the review, if appropriate. A cultural expert will have a role in each case that involves an Indigenous children, and the child and youth advocate would maintain a list of experts.

Graff said he was pleased the bill attempts to streamline the process and ensure he and his staff get information they need to conduct investigations. 

Advocate will need more funding

Expanded responsibilities for the child and youth advocate mean the office will need more funding.

Larivee said a decision to increase funding lies with the standing committee of legislative offices, in consultation with the advocate's office.

Nixon, who is also a member of the standing committee of legislative offices, acknowledged the office will need more funding but said he was not willing to hand over a blank cheque.

"I look forward to hearing from (the advocate) what he thinks that will be," Nixon said. 

Graff doesn't yet have an estimate on how much new funding will be required. 

The advocate is limited in what identifying information can be released in reports. That part of the legislation won't change. 

Larivee said identification is a complex issue and it is still under discussion.