Family voices are needed in child death reviews: Ministerial Panel member

Patti LaBoucane-Benson delivered the message to a senior official in the Children’s Services ministry at the latest panel meeting Tuesday.

‘I believe the family has an important part to play,’ says Patti LaBoucane-Benson

Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee and Elder Francis Whiskeyjack at the February opening of the panel reviewing child intervention services. (CBC)

One of the members of the Ministerial Panel on Alberta's child intervention system is pressing the government to include families more when examining the circumstances behind their children's deaths in care.

Patti LaBoucane-Benson delivered the message to a senior official in the Children's Services department at the latest panel meeting Tuesday.

LaBoucane-Benson, who is director of research for Native Counselling Services of Alberta, said even though there are several internal reviews of child deaths, most focus on talking to the staff and professionals involved in their care.

"Do the families have any voice in this review?" LaBoucane-Benson asked, adding that their information could be critical in developing an understanding of the child's life.

"Asking the family's perspective on perhaps the nature of the relationship with the service providers and in the children in the families that might help with the quality control process."

The panel, which was struck to come up with recommendations to strengthen Alberta's child intervention system, is about halfway through its work and is currently focusing on investigations that happen after a child dies in care.

The Ministry of Children's Services reported that 73 children and youth who were receiving intervention services, died in care between April 2014 and the end of 2016.

'Absolute importance' in hearing from families

There are at least five investigations into every child's death, including internal government examinations.

Those inquiries are done by Ministry staff and the Council for Quality Assurance, which has it's own panel of experts. But the government confirmed that neither group talks to families as a standard practice although it sometimes happens.

The youth advocate does family interviews and his reports are fantastic.- Patti LaBoucane-Benson

Other investigations are done by the Chief Medical Examiner, the Fatality Review Board and the Child and Youth Advocate.

"The only process in this entire thing that I've seen that talks to families is the office of the Child and Youth Advocate," said LaBoucane-Benson. "The youth advocate does family interviews and his reports are fantastic."

The statutory director of children's services, Elden Block, was taking the panel's questions as the person with the legal responsibility for child and youth care.

He replied by suggesting that LaBoucane-Benson raised a good point that requires further consideration.

Block said there is "absolute importance" in hearing the voices of families and that it's an area the ministry would ask for guidance on.

Considering the number of reviews into child deaths, several other panel members asked if there was a way some could be streamlined.

"What could be done to collaborate so that it is more streamlined and we're not doing duplication for the family and for the workers so that it's a better process?" said Nicole Goehring, the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Castle Downs, who worked in the child intervention system as a social worker before getting elected.

Goehring said that while the families may not be spoken to in every review, just knowing that several reviews are going on and waiting for the results is another stress.

"It's a horrible time in their life and so having this come up again and again and again, it has to be a concern for these families," she said.

The panel is expected to hand down recommendations on the child death review process some time in April.

But that's only the first phase of its work, with the second part expected to take up to eight months, examining the child intervention system as a whole.