Serenity's mother tells inquiry relationship with caseworker was difficult from start

The mother of four-year-old Serenity says her relationship with her child welfare caseworker was strained from their first meeting.

Inquiry hears mother didn't understand her legal rights

A photograph of a little girl is seen on a cellphone held by an adult.
Serenity's mother holds up a photo up her daughter who died in 2014. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

The mother of four-year-old Serenity says her relationship with her child welfare caseworker was strained from their first meeting.

Serenity died in September 2014 after sustaining a head injury at the home of her great aunt and uncle in the central Alberta community of Maskwacis, south of Edmonton.

The mother, who can't be identified because of a court-ordered publication ban in place to protect her children's identities, took the stand Friday to give evidence about her involvement with the child welfare system in the years leading up to Serenity's death.

The Indigenous girl and her older brother and sister had been placed in the home under a kinship care arrangement — an alternative to foster care in Alberta — in April 2013.

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. 

At one point the great aunt and uncle faced a failure to provide the necessaries of life charge, but that was stayed in 2019 when prosecutors said there was no chance of conviction.

On Friday, Serenity's mother recounted her first meeting with her caseworker Leanne Worthington, back before Serenity was born. Her two older children had been taken into care and Worthington was supervising a visit between the mother and the young girl and boy.

The mother said she brought Goldfish crackers and gave them to her children. Once the kids started eating, she said Worthington told her that wasn't a healthy snack and that she needed to take them away from the kids. The mother objected but said Worthington insisted.

"She told me she was going to cancel my visit with my kids if I didn't," she said.

The mother took the crackers away.

"And after that, we just didn't see eye to eye," she said of her relationship with the caseworker.

The mother told court about her experiences with Worthington and other caseworkers over the years, and said she was deeply upset when she learned by a chance visit to the courthouse that the kinship care guardians were to be granted private guardianship of the children in late October 2013 — a status that meant Children's Services no longer had authority to monitor the family. 

An affidavit by Worthington states that she told the mother about the private guardianship application on Oct. 11, 2013, but on Friday provincial court Judge Renée Cochard noted that she went through Worthington's files and that while there were other entries and records about the family from that time period, she was unable to find an entry noting the call to the mother.

A little girl in a hospital bed.
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. (Name withheld)

On the first day of the inquiry, court heard that while Worthington had relevant evidence to give as a witness, she had been excused because of a medical condition. However, on Sept. 21 — which was supposed to be the inquiry's last day — Cochard made an order to call Worthington as a witness and to provide her with appropriate accommodations to enable her to give evidence.

The inquiry is scheduled to resume on Nov. 15.

A number of other staff from child welfare organizations that had involvement with the family have been called as witnesses since the inquiry began earlier this month.

Mother calls for better communication

The mother also testified about the experience of seeing Serenity in hospital on life support, and the trauma Serenity's two older siblings dealt with in the wake of her death. The brother and sister have alleged they were abused while in the kinship home, but no charges have ever been laid and none of their allegations have been proven in court.

At the end of the inquiry, Cochard will prepare a report with her findings on the circumstances of Serenity's death. Though she can't assign blame, she can make recommendations for how similar deaths could be prevented in the future.

Asked what changes she thinks could help prevent a repeat of what happened to her daughter, Serenity's mother said that looking back, she wishes someone would have explained the legalities of having children in care more clearly.

"Yes, when a child is taken into care, a parent's rights should be explained to them," she said.