Key witness collapses while giving evidence in Serenity inquiry

A key witness in the fatality inquiry into the death of four-year-old Serenity collapsed while giving evidence on Monday.

Fatality inquiry got underway 7 years after death of 4-year-old Indigenous girl

The public fatality inquiry was launched seven years after four-year-old Serenity died of severe head trauma in an Edmonton hospital. (Supplied)

A key witness in the fatality inquiry into the death of four-year-old Serenity collapsed while testifying on Monday.

Leanne Worthington was called to answer questions about her involvement as a caseworker for the young Indigenous girl.

Serenity died in September 2014 after sustaining a head injury while living with her great aunt and uncle in a kinship care arrangement.

As an alternative to foster care, Serenity and her two older siblings had been placed at the couple's home near the central Alberta community of Maskwacis, south of Edmonton, in April 2013.

Serenity's full name and the names of her family members are subject to a court-ordered publication ban to protect the identities of her siblings.

Serenity's death, and the bruised and emaciated state of her body when she was admitted to hospital, prompted a firestorm of media and public criticism that led to changes to Alberta's child welfare policies.

A critical witness

The fatality inquiry, headed by provincial court Judge Renee Cochard, began in September. Court heard then that Worthington had been excused as a witness because of medical issues.

However, after hearing from other witnesses, including Serenity's mother, social workers and other staff involved in the family's child welfare case, Cochard determined Worthington's evidence was central to the inquiry's purposes.

On Nov. 8, Worthington made an application to be excused, citing medical concerns and memory issues.

Cochard denied the application.

The judge noted that there were many unanswered questions that only Worthington would be able to address because of the critical role she played in Serenity and her siblings being placed in the kinship care home.

The judge also had questions about the decision to forge ahead with an application to grant the couple private guardianship of the children.

"[Worthington] has been very much the central figure in the testimony of all of the witnesses thus far," Cochard said on Nov. 8.

She said the evidence before her about Worthington's capacity to testify did not outweigh her value as a witness.

Cochard made a number of accommodations for Worthington, including allowing her to testify by videoconferencing instead of in person, and to have her lawyer and her husband at her side.

But on Monday, as Worthington began testifying remotely, she had difficulty answering questions and ultimately collapsed, falling to the floor.

The inquiry was adjourned. When it resumed, court heard that Worthington had injured her head in the fall.

After some discussion, all parties, including Serenity's mother who previously testified about her difficult relationship with the caseworker, agreed that Worthington should be excused as a witness.

"[Serenity's mother] has advised me she does not wish any further harm to come to Ms. Worthington," her counsel Michael McVey told court. 

Cochard made a final effort to get at Worthington's knowledge about Serenity's time in care.

The judge asked Worthington's lawyer, Heidi Besuijen, to ask her client about waiving her privilege so the court can access witness statements she might have made, and kept, during previous reviews of Serenity's death.

Worthington was the inquiry's final witness.

Lawyers representing Serenity's mother, the kinship caregiver, and Children's Services have until Dec. 1 to submit written recommendations they would like considered when Cochard writes her report on the circumstances of Serenity's death.

Cochard cannot assign blame but can make recommendations about how similar deaths could be prevented in the future.