'10,000 reasons to get it right': Alberta child intervention panel meets for first time

A government panel asked to find ways to improve Alberta’s child intervention system met Wednesday for the first time since the group was chosen in January. The panel was struck after serious concerns were raised about the death of four-year-old Serenity in 2014.

Panel struck after serious concerns were raised about the death of four-year-old Serenity in 2014

Alberta's Ministerial Panel on Child Intervention is seeking more information before making a recommendation on how to better balance public accountability with family privacy when a child dies in care.

The first meeting of Alberta's latest child-intervention panel was fraught with questions and criticisms about how transparent it will be and who will be allowed to participate. 

The panel, made up of opposition and government MLAs and experts in social work, does not include children or families actually involved with the child-care system.   

"It's a number one concern I'm hearing from the people of Alberta on this topic, and it's certainly my number one concern," said Jason Nixon, Wildrose MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre.

In December, then-human services Minister Irfan Sabir announced the panel after the government came under intense criticism for the way the province handled the investigation into the death of four-year-old Serenity in 2014. 

The little girl was emaciated when she arrived at hospital. An autopsy later found signs she had been sexually assaulted. The government admitted it took too long for documents relating to her death to be handed over to the RCMP.

I felt I had no voice, I felt that I didn't matter.- Shauna Parks, former foster child

Three experts in social work and 11 MLAs sit on the panel, which has been asked with finding ways to improve Alberta's child-intervention system.

Shauna Parks, a former foster child in Alberta's kinship care system and now a teacher at Mount Royal University, came up from Calgary on the first day of the panel to hear the discussion.

The death of Serenity prompted questions about how the then-department of Human Services deals with cases of children in care. (supplied)

She insisted that someone with "lived experience in child and family services care" should be on the panel.

"Someone who's lived through the system and experienced different challenges but have come out the other end," Parks said.

She told CBC News she was placed in nine different homes between the ages of 11 to 18. In 2003, someone advocating on her behalf invited her to speak to the minister of Children's Services, which she described as a pivotal moment in her development. 

"I felt I had no voice, I felt that I didn't matter, that I didn't belong, I didn't have someone that loved me, I felt lost in that system," she said outside the panel room at Government House on Wednesday. "I know that at that point in time, that I had the opportunity to speak to someone, something inside me clicked."

'I felt lost in that system'

7 years ago
Duration 1:27
Shauna Parks had nine placements over seven years in Alberta's child care system.

Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee said people who've been through or are still in the system will be given a chance to speak. But she said the panel's role is different from those providing information.

"The panel itself is purely there to take in all of the suggestions and information and translate that into recommendations," Larivee said.   

The government is also being criticized for not allowing the proceedings to be broadcast or recorded. 

Greg Clark, leader of the Alberta Party, wants to see the meetings live-streamed and recorded.

"I'd like to see this panel known for how open it is, that its number one objective should be shining a light on the challenges we see occurring over and over and over again in Alberta's child- intervention system," Clark said.

Larivee said the decision to not allow recording was made is to protect the privacy and identities of those in the audience.

 "We needed to protect their ability to feel safe in that space as well."

So far, work of the 13-member panel has gotten off to a slow start. with Wednesday session focused mainly on how to proceed with the review, which is the seventh in eight years. 

Leader of the Alberta Party, Greg Clark, wants the panel's discussions to be broadcast and recorded. (CBC)

"I really want to put down the partisan gloves and try to work with all the parties that are involved to try to get this right for kids," Nixon said.

He added that the members will ask about recommendations made in the past.

"We're going to be watching very closely to make sure that some of the behaviour that we have seen with past panels does not continue, i.e. recommendations made and nothing goes forward."

The panel is being asked to report back in eight to 10 weeks before phase 2 of the review, which Nixon said he will insist includes people actually involved in the welfare system.

"It's an astronomical project," he said. "As you start to do the reading to prepare for this panel, you realize how many people have tried to tackle this in the past."

The new minister of Children's Services, Danielle Larivee, told the panel there are 10,000 children receiving intervention services from the Alberta government and therefore "10,000 reasons to get it right."

Initially, opposition parties had threatened to boycott the review unless the terms of reference were changed to speed up the process. 

The panel will look at how to improve Alberta's child death review process, how to strengthen the child-intervention system and look at the systemic issues that lead to children coming into government care.