Dark family secrets: Anonymous letter uncovers child welfare records

An Alberta woman wants answers after some of her own personal child welfare files were anonymously sent to her daughter, revealing family secrets.

Government acknowledges 'malicious misuse of an Albertan's private information'

Anna Courtoreille says the release of some of her personal information has caused family stress and anxiety. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Like any other day, Kelly Courtoreille Wright checked her mailbox when she got to work, but what she found inside it changed her life.

It was November, 2015. Courtoreille Wright was a maternal child health worker for the North Peace Tribal Council in High Level, 740 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

She picked up a white envelope, addressed to her in handwriting.

Inside were mind-blowing and disturbing details about her own childhood, things even she hadn't known about her past.

The information shook her to the core.

"It was like, holy crap," Courtoreille Wright told CBC News.

A photocopy of the envelope that was in Kelly Courtoreille Wright's mailbox at work. (Sam Martin/CBC)

The information was from her mother's child welfare records, some of it dating back to the 1980s.

It was three pages of material, cut and pasted from her mother's files and those of other family members.

The revelations turned her life upside down.

Growing up in care, Courtoreille Wright had always believed she had been taken away from her mother as a young child. The documents laid bare a different story.

"The most shocking was I did not know that my mother had given us up," she said. "I started crying because a lot of this stuff I did not know."

Private files from traumatic time

Courtoreille Wright, now 31, went to talk to her mother for an explanation.

Anna Courtoreille, 51, said she planned to one day tell the full story to her daughters Kelly and her other daughter Marlena, now 32 and living in Australia.

She never expected they would hear about it from anyone else.

"These are child welfare files that I thought were under lock and key," Anna Courtoreille said.

The information contained in the letter dated back to a time she was a young mother living in the Beaver First Nation's Child Lake community, east of High Level.

What this did was destroy my family. It destroyed my relationship with my girls.- Anna Courtoreille

With parents who had suffered their own torture in residential schools, she had endured a tough childhood herself and was fighting addictions.

But that was in the past. Now she is sober and trained as an addictions counsellor.

"Those notes were not meant for them to see," Anna Courtoreille said. "[There were] some really, really private traumatic things written in these notes that I didn't want my girls to know."

Unauthorized access 

The files detailed some of her own shortcomings as a parent, actions she now regrets.

There were examples of troubling interactions with her daughters.

The impact was devastating.

"What this did was destroy my family. It destroyed my relationship with my girls," she said.

With no clues about who was behind the letter, Courtoreille filed a complaint with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta.

An investigation followed. It found what happened was wrong.

"The disclosure of the complainant's personal information was not authorized under Section 40(1) of the FOIP Act," said one of the conclusions in a finding report dated Nov. 7, 2016.

Six people accessed mother's files

The report relied on some information from an audit carried out by the provincial government department of Human Services.

The department got involved because it contracts with the North Peace Tribal Council to provide services to First Nations families.

It also provides the tribal council with computer access to child welfare files.

The audit identified that six employees from the North Peace Tribal Council had accessed Courtoreille's files. But it couldn't determine who had created and sent the anonymous letter.

A Freedom of Information investigation report revealed three employees of the North Peace Tribal Council were unable to show they had a work related purpose for accessing the files. (Sam Martin/CBC)

The audit revealed that while three of the six employees had a work-related purpose for accessing the files, the other three did not.

"Appropriate steps were taken by the North Peace Tribal Council to address this matter with these three employees," the report says. It doesn't specify the measures taken.

Waiting for an apology

Steve Courtoreille, the tribal council's CEO, told CBC the council's response has been appropriate but refused to discuss the matter further.

The FOIP report recommended that Human Services and the North Peace Tribal Council each provide Courtoreille with a letter of explanation and apology, and offer to meet with her.

Courtoreille said she went to a meeting with all the parties involved. But no one has ever apologized, she said.

"I want to know who the workers were and why they did it. I want an explanation why," she said, adding the privacy breach still causes her pain, hurt and shame every day.

Breach described as 'malicious' by Alberta government

In a statement provided to CBC News Sunday by Aaron Manton in the Ministry of Children's Services, the province describes what happened as a "malicious misuse of an Albertan's private information."

It's rare when intentional privacy breaches happen the statement explained but when they do "we take additional steps to protect the compromised information, such as freezing access to that specific information, and use tools within our case management system to identify the individuals involved," the statement said.

The emailed statement doesn't say anything about Anna Courtoreille's assertion that she didn't receive the written apology the FOIP investigation recommended.

'I went into depression'

Anna Courtoreille fears others in her small community know about her personal information.

The unauthorized disclosure she thinks was done to hurt her continues to cause her unbearable anxiety, she said.

Reporter Gareth Hampshire looks at the FOIP finding report with Anna Courtoreille. (Sam Martin/CBC)

Since it happened she finds it hard to even leave her house.

"I went into depression. I have anxiety so bad and I can't work," she said.

Daughter Kelly has since left her job at the North Peace Tribal Council and is now training to be a social worker.

Mother and daughter both want to see some accountability for the mystery letter that changed both their lives.

'I don't understand'

"I don't know if it would benefit me to know who it was but at the same time I could ask this person what was the purpose of it," said Courtoreille Wright.

The FOIP report says restrictions have since been placed on access to the computer files of Anna Courtoreille and her family.

It found that the department of Human Services responded "immediately and appropriately" after being informed that Courtoreille's personal information had been disclosed without authorization.

Measures were also taken by the ministry of Human Services to educate the North Peace Tribal Council "in order to prevent a similar occurrence," the report says.

But none of that is good enough for Anna Courtoreille.

"I'm just really angry at the people that did this. I don't understand why they did this."