Details of Serenity's injuries were false, guardians claim in court documents

Medical reports leaked to the media about Serenity's injuries were erroneous and inaccurate, the guardians claim in response to a $1.6-million lawsuit filed by Serenity’s mother.

Warning: This story contains graphic details which may be disturbing to some readers

Serenity was four years old when she died of severe head trauma in an Edmonton hospital. (Supplied)

More than two years after four-year-old Serenity died in 2014, horrific details emerged about her apparent injuries at the time of her death.

The little girl's guardians claimed she fell off a tire swing, but some of her medical reports, leaked to the media, indicated she had bruising in her genital and pubic areas and a missing hymen.

Those reports were erroneous and inaccurate, the guardians claim in an amended statement of defence in response to a $1.6-million lawsuit filed by Serenity's mother.

"[Serenity's] hymen was intact at the time of her Sept. 18, 2014 swing accident and her hymen was intact at the time of her autopsy," the guardians claim in their May 2019 response to the mother's 2016 civil suit.

"The allegation that Serenity was missing her hymen is completely false."

Serenity was living in a kinship care arrangement on a central Alberta reserve when she was admitted to an Edmonton hospital in September 2014. She died a week later after she was taken off life support.

The case prompted public outrage and an emergency debate in the Alberta legislature. Her death led to the creation of a panel looking into the province's child-intervention system. The provincial government later revamped its system for child intervention, based on recommendations from the panel.

Through sources, CBC has confirmed Serenity's autopsy report was made available to the lawyers representing the guardians, who were criminally charged in 2016 with failing to provide the necessaries of life.

That charge was stayed this week after the Crown determined there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction.

CBC News asked the Crown prosecutor for comment Thursday about the guardians' claim that Serenity's hymen was not missing.

"As you are likely aware, the Crown is legally obligated to provide all relevant evidence to defence counsel," an Alberta Justice spokesperson said in a written response to CBC's request. "We cannot comment on the contents of the disclosure."

Serenity's mother has repeatedly asked for a copy of the autopsy report, but was turned down every time by the Crown and RCMP, she told CBC Thursday. She said she has not made that request since the criminal charge was stayed on Tuesday.

"The RCMP, Alberta Child Welfare, the medical examiner's office and the medical staff have negligently or maliciously allowed [the mother] to falsely believe that Serenity's hymen was missing and that Serenity as a four-year old had been raped," the statement of defence states.

"[They] have negligently or maliciously allowed all of the public that have read the media reports to falsely believe that Serenity's hymen was missing at the time of her injury." 

The guardians suggest in their statement of defence that there was a motive.

"Alberta Child Welfare is attempting to make [the guardians] the scapegoats so that the incompetence and malice of Alberta Child Welfare is not the focus of [Serenity's mother] and the public's anger," the statement of defence says.

'Coerced and misled'

In her lawsuit, filed in June 2016, Serenity's mother alleges that the guardians and their seven children "repeatedly physically, sexually and emotionally abused" Serenity and her two older siblings.

The statement of claim also names as defendants the Alberta government, Akamkisipatinaw Ohpikihawasowin Child and Family Services, The Louis Bull Band and the Boys and Girls Club of Wetaskiwin Society.

The guardians deny the allegations against them, claiming that they "acted in good faith and provided reasonable care and supervision to [Serenity and her brother and sister] consistent with their ability."

The guardians claim they were "coerced and misled" by child welfare officials to take guardianship of the mother's three children. They allege Serenity's family was threatened that if they didn't help out, the children would be separated and adopted into non-Indigenous families. 

The statement of defence alleges the guardians had no idea Serenity and her siblings had high needs, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and failure to thrive. 

"Therefore, [the guardians] were unable to make an informed decision to determine if they could or should care for the children," the court document states.

The guardians claim the director of child welfare "knowingly filed a false affidavit stating the children were healthy to mislead the court and to mislead [the guardians]." 

The guardians claim the director wanted to save money by "offloading the costs" of caring for the children onto the guardians, rather than paying for supports or foster care.

"[Child welfare authorities] did not have adequate foster families available to care for the children at that time and in general," the statement of defence continues. "As a result, the institutional third parties were desperate to place the children anywhere, whether or not it was reasonable and appropriate."

Child welfare agency denies wrongdoing

In its own December 2018 statement of defence, Akamkisipatinaw Ohpikihawasowin Child and Family Services (AKO) denied any wrongdoing.

"AKO specifically denies that there was any threat made to separate the children and to adopt them into families that were not aboriginal, and at no time did AKO or its employees coerce or mislead the [guardians] or anyone else," the AKO defence statement says.

The guardians allege in their statement of defence that in the summer of 2014, the RCMP received a request to investigate the health and weight of Serenity, her brother and sister and passed that request along to AKO.

"AKO failed to conduct any investigation because they were grossly understaffed and overworked," the guardians claim.

Last November, the guardians and their children filed a third-party claim against "the institutional third parties," seeking $210,000 in damages to cover legal fees and lost wages. 

Their claim states the family has suffered stress and a loss of reputation, and that Serenity's female guardian is unable to find any employment working with children, "despite an impeccable record of 30 years working in child care."

None of the allegations made in the statement of claim, statements of defence and third-party claim have been proven in court.

Guardians 'grateful' criminal charge stayed

Edmonton lawyer Robert Lee had defended one of the two guardians in the criminal case and is representing both of them in the civil suit.

On Thursday, he said he has one hope about the case.

"That the truth comes out and that the blame is focused on where it belongs," he said. 

"[They] are very grateful and relieved that they no longer face the risk of going to jail for trying to have helped family relatives."

If new evidence is found, the Crown has one year to reactivate the criminal charge against the guardians.

A fatality inquiry has been ordered into Serenity's death once the criminal investigation has concluded.


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston was an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father.