'She deserves justice': Serenity's mother calls for stronger child-protection laws

Three years after a little girl named Serenity died of horrific injuries, Alberta's justice minister has confirmed that a fatality inquiry has been ordered in the case.

Alberta's justice minister confirms that fatality inquiry has been ordered in the case

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

Three years after a little girl named Serenity died of horrific injuries, Alberta's justice minister has confirmed that a fatality inquiry has been ordered in the case.

The inquiry, led by the chief medical examiner's office, will only be held after the criminal investigation has been concluded, and any related charges have been fully resolved in the courts, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said Friday in a statement to CBC News.

"We know that this has been a long time to wait for the family, who have suffered such a heartbreaking loss," Ganley said.

"The RCMP and Crown prosecutors are working together to ensure they have thoroughly reviewed and considered all the evidence. I am confident the professionals working on this investigation are doing everything they can to move this case forward."

RCMP declined this week to comment on the progress of their "active" investigation.

For her part, Serenity's mother said she hopes the tragedy will lead to new protections for the province's most vulnerable children.

Her four-year-old daughter lived with relatives in a kinship care placement on a central-Alberta reserve. Despite repeated reports of abuse, full legal guardianship of Serenity and her two siblings had been awarded to her kinship caregivers, before she was admitted to hospital in September 2014.

She was suffering from catastrophic injuries, including a fractured skull and starvation. She died four days later, on Sept. 27, 2014.

Serenity's caregivers said at the time she had fallen from a tire swing. But a forensic pediatrician determined her injuries were inconsistent with a fall.

Three years after she got the call that her daughter was dying in an Edmonton hospital, Serenity's mother remains haunted by memories, and continues to fight for justice.

"I want her story to achieve better service in the social worker system," said the mother, who cannot be named under child protection laws. "There should be much more safety protocol within the system, and I want Serenity to change that.

"That's how I want her to be remembered. She deserves justice."

A private member's bill introduced last fall by Calgary MLA Mike Ellis would have required adults to report to police any child who needs intervention, under the threat of six months in jail or a $10,000 fine.

The bill never came up for debate.
This photo of Serenity, taken by her mother, shows how thin the 4-year-old had become. She died several days after this photo was taken in September 2014. (Supplied)

Ellis said he won't give up on the bill he called Serenity's Law, even after the government stonewalled the legislation last December.

"It was very far down on the docket," Ellis said. "I encouraged the government to bring it forward — they were the only ones who had the ability to bring it forward — and they did not do that. And right now, it's died on the docket.

"Words cannot express how disappointed I was." 

Ellis's bill proposed a simple amendment to Alberta's Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act, which already requires adults to inform "a director" if a child is in danger. 

Under the amendment, any adult who saw a child in distress would have been legally required to inform police. The maximum fine for not doing so would have increased to $10,000, from the current $2,000.

"This is not a sweeping change to the legislation," Ellis said. "This is really about doing something that I would consider reasonable, and in the best interests in trying to protect children.

"It was something that would provide a legacy for Serenity, and we believed that this change in the legislation would have an impact on people all throughout the province.

"There were responsible adults that knew that these children were in jeopardy, and were requiring immediate intervention. And people turned a blind eye. It's not right."

When she was admitted to hospital, Serenity had severe hypothermia and bruises on her back, legs, pelvis and anus. Her hymen was missing.

Alberta's medical examiner determined the cause of death but has never released that information to the public. No charges have been laid.

Revelations about the troubling case — and a CBC News investigation, which revealed children were still being cared for in the Serenity's kinship home — created a political firestorm, and prompted the creation of an Alberta child intervention panel to investigate failings within the system.

'I want to see arrests'

Serenity's mother said she has been in regular contact with police, and hopes their claims that the investigation is progressing are true.

She doesn't understand how an investigation could take three years, and said she won't find peace until the justice system takes action.

"I want to see arrests, I want to see charges," she said. "I'm frustrated. I don't know who to believe, at this point. It's been three years, what's going on?"

Her two surviving children still struggle with the trauma the family endured.

Serenity's paternal grandmother fears the investigation will become a cold case. She has launched a petition, calling for justice for Serenity. It has so far garnered nearly 1,300 signatures.

She also has plans to hold a rally at the Alberta legislature next Wednesday, where she will call for improved protections for children in care.

The grandmother first met Serenity in hospital bed. She was part of her granddaughter's life, but wants to bring her justice in death.

"My world has been crushed, really crushed, and the justice system is not there," she said. "There has to be something done for our children's rights." 

'I'm always going to be sad'

Serenity's mother said she lost custody of her children in September 2010. She told CBC News that domestic abuse and drug use — she drank and smoked marijuana — resulted in her children being removed from her home. 

The 29-year-old later moved away from Alberta, trained as a chef, and regained her sobriety. She regained custody of her other children.

"I am happy with the life I'm living right now," she said. "But in the back of my mind, there is an empty spot that [Serenity] filled that isn't there anymore. I'm always going to be sad.

"I can't change what happened. I can just keep fighting for her."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca.