'God only knows': Serenity's mother concerned about children living in former foster home

Children are still living in the former foster home where Serenity lived before she died emaciated and battered in an Edmonton hospital bed, CBC News has learned.

'After seeing what happened with my children ... God only knows what goes on in there'

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

Children are still living in the former foster home where Serenity lived before she died emaciated and battered in an Edmonton hospital bed, CBC News has learned.

"It can't be good, after seeing what happened with my children," said Serenity's mother, who cannot be identified under provincial child welfare legislation to avoid identifying her other children. "God only knows what goes on in there."

Serenity, 4, died in September 2014.

She lived with relatives in a kinship care placement on a central Alberta reserve when she was admitted to hospital suffering from disturbing injuries, including a fractured skull and starvation.

The RCMP is investigating the circumstances of her death.

Several children who were living in the home at the time of Serenity's death have not been removed from the property, reserve residents told CBC News.

'What child's in there starving now?'

Among the children in question — all of whom are direct biological relatives of Serenity's one-time caregivers — are two infants, two young children in elementary school and two teenagers under 18.

One source told CBC News the younger children have not been seen at school since last October.

Serenity's mother said she can't fathom why the residents of the home are still looking after so many children.

"It's obviously not good at all," she said. "Because if it's not happening to my children now, it's probably happening to the children that are still in there. I don't understand why they [social services] haven't taken the children out of there.

"What child's in there starving now? My child came out at 18 pounds at almost five years old — that's starvation at its finest."
A picture taken of Serenity, 4, while in the Stollery Children's Hospital in September 2014. The photograph was taken by her mother and was recently recovered from a broken cell phone. (Supplied)

Serenity's mother asked provincial child welfare officers to investigate last October but said she was told that no "official complaints" had been filed. CBC News has confirmed there were two child welfare complaints made against the family this year.

"I've asked why they have not been investigated after my daughter got hurt there and my other kids were abused there," she said. "I think a child getting hurt like that, and the abuse that went on there with my kids, there is enough in my eyes. I don't see what other complaints there should be."

Serenity was admitted to Edmonton's Stollery Children's Hospital in September 2014, four years after she and her siblings had been placed in government care.

She was a skeletal 18 pounds. Her emaciated body, including her genital areas, were covered with cuts and deep purple bruises. She was gaunt and hypothermic. Her skull was fractured, the apparent cause of a horrific brain injury. Her hymen was missing.

She was removed from life support a week later.

The Alberta medical examiner didn't complete its report on Serenity's death until two years after she died.

Serenity's mother, who regained full legal guardianship of her children in the week before Serenity's death, is still waiting for a copy of the autopsy report.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Laurel Scott said there is "no update" on the case and they "are still waiting for an outcome" on the investigation.

A sworn affidavit from a child welfare worker, filed in provincial court in September 2014, said significant evidence of abuse in the foster home was found. Serenity's surviving siblings reported being beaten with hangers, and said they were regularly denied food by their foster mother.

The welfare worker recommended custody of Serenity and her siblings be transferred immediately back to their biological mother. 

"I believe the children are in need of intervention in respect to the guardians," the affidavit said.

The document added "the child is being neglected by the guardian, the child has been or there is substantial risk the child will be physically injured or sexually abused by the guardian of the child and the guardian of the child is unable or unwilling to protect the child from physical injury of sexual abuse."

The affidavit also cited significant weight loss among Serenity's siblings and described how the other children in the home were encouraged to beat Serenity and her siblings.

"Both children disclosed again about being hit by [their caregiver] with metal and plastic hangers," the affidavit said.

The document claimed children of the caregivers also hit them and one child hit them because the foster mother told her to do so. The "reason they and Serenity are hit is because they are crying, acting up or have stolen food from the fridge," the affidavit suggested.

'I wouldn't let my dog sleep in there'

The case has become the focus in an ongoing review of child welfare services in the province. But there are still unanswered questions about government oversight and the RCMP investigation into Serenity's death.

Serenity and her two older half-siblings were taken from their mother's care because Serenity's father had been physically abusive and because their mother had struggled with substance abuse issues. First, the children were placed with non-Aboriginal families, but they were eventually transferred to the reserve to live with distant relatives in a kinship-care arrangement.

Initially, Serenity's mother was allowed regular visits with her children. But after filing complaints about alleged neglect in the home where they were staying, the mother was barred by the foster parents from returning to the property.

Desperate to ensure the welfare of her children, she enlisted the help of her cousin. The local woman would regularly visit the foster home in the months that preceded Serenity's death until she too was prevented from visiting the property, she said.

The conditions in the home were deplorable, said the cousin, who is not being named to protect the identity of the children.

"They were sleeping on this futon, this hide-a-bed couch, and it was all broken and it smelled like pee really bad," she said. "The room was terrible. I wouldn't let my dog sleep in there."

Large dogs were always growling in the front yard, the property was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and the children were rarely seen in school, said the cousin.

"Serenity had bandages between her legs, by her vagina, and there were bruises all along there," she said. "Every time I saw them, those kids, they had bruises and cuts on them. Every single time.

"There was not one time that I saw them freshly bathed in clothes that actually fit them or they weren't telling me that they were hungry."

When asked for comment, Alberta Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee declined to speak directly about the case or the ongoing RCMP investigation.

But she provided a statement reaffirming the government's commitment to child welfare and protection, suggesting every report of abuse is taken seriously.
This photo of Serenity, taken by her mother, shows how thin the four year old had become. She died several days after this photo was taken in September 2014. (Supplied)

Of the 55,000 cases reported to Children's Services each year, only 12 per cent result in a file being opened. Four per cent of those investigations result in the removal of children from the home, according to the minister's office.

"Removing children from the home is a last resort," said Aaron Manton, Larivee's press secretary.

Any family involved in an ongoing criminal investigation would be prohibited from having foster or kinship care placements in their home, according to a department statement. However, the situation becomes more nuanced when biological relatives are involved, the statement added.

"We know that many families engage in informal arrangements to support each other by providing homes for grandchildren and other relatives. In those cases where Children's Services is not involved, we still want to ensure that all children are safe, supported, and loved, regardless of whose care they are in."

Serenity's cousin said she would like to see the RCMP and the province re-open their investigation on the family. Without intervention, she said she fears the remaining children will suffer.

"It makes me wonder what else these little kids are going through, because if Serenity's hymen was missing and she was four years old, what are they doing to other kids that can't speak for themselves?

"Personally, I don't think any children should be in their care, especially ones that can't defend themselves or speak up for themselves."

With files from Gareth Hampshire