New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

Youth advocate wants power to investigate child deaths

Child and youth advocate Norm Bossé has power to see New Brunswick's secret reports on child deaths, but he can't investigate or tell the public about them.

New Brunswick government says the system in place now is 'excellent'

New Brunswick child and youth advocate Norm Bossé wants the power to investigate child deaths. (CBC)

Child and youth advocate Norm Bossé is calling for the power to investigate and publicly report on the deaths of children known to child protection officials.

At least 53 of those children have died from unnatural causes in the past two decades, a CBC News investigation has found.

Their deaths were investigated by the province's child death review committee, which reports to the chief coroner.

The committee's reports are not public.

Bossé is one of the few people allowed to see the child death review reports.

But there's a catch. His office doesn't have the power to investigate or tell the public what the reports say.

It means the public is left in the dark, with little information on how at-risk children are dying.

The Lost Children: What you need to know

5 years ago
Duration 1:53
The Lost Children is a CBC News investigation into New Brunswick's child death review system.

Allowing an independent office to investigate would add another layer of transparency, Bossé said in an interview broadcast Friday on Information Morning Fredericton.

"That could result in making sure the public is aware of how these deaths occur and how we can prevent them," he said.

Government says system is already 'excellent'

The government hasn't committed to giving Bossé's office that power, saying the child death review system in place now is already "excellent."

"We are ready to listen to suggestions as we always do," Environment and Local Government Minister Serge Rousselle said Thursday.

"He can put it in the next annual report. If he wants to come and meet us, we are open to that. But I'm just saying, this is news to me."

Rousselle, the cabinet minister designated to speak on the issue Thursday, questioned why the child and youth advocate's office hasn't made this suggestion before.

But former advocate Bernard Richard called for more independent child death reviews as early as 2008, when he reported on the death of Juli-Anna St. Peter.

Juli-Anna St. Peter was 27 months old when she died in 2004. She would be 15 years old now. (CBC)
Richard had to fight the provincial government in court to gain access to 27-month-old Juli-Anna's child protection records.

"Measures should have been put in place to give it independence from the government," Bossé said.

"To my knowledge, that's never been done."

Room for improvement

According to Bossé, youth advocates in at least five other provinces have a mandate to investigate the deaths of children in care.

In some provinces, including Alberta, the details are published with the child's name protected under a pseudonym.

If given the power, Bossé said his office would need more resources to properly investigate the deaths.

He would also want "unrestricted" ability to investigate fully. That would include the power to tell the public its findings.

"You can't give me the powers and say, 'But you can't produce a report,'" Bossé said. "That's unheard of. If we are independent legislative offices, then we have to be completely independent."

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman says the province already has the best child protection policies in the country. (CBC)
The provincial government says privacy legislation restricts it from speaking publicly about how children under government watch are dying.

It also says child death reports are considered confidential advice to a minister.

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman has questioned how much information the public wants to know about these deaths.

But Bossé said people care about children and their safety.

"I know that most people in New Brunswick do care about how these deaths occur and how to prevent them," he said.

Asked to grade New Brunswick's ability to protect at-risk children, Bossé assigned the system a B.

"There's room for improvement."

Jackie Brewer, the 2-year-old who was ignored to death

How New Brunswick's child death review system works

Part 2The Lost Children: 'A child that dies shouldn't be anonymous'

Haunted by Juli-Anna: An 'agonizingly painful' preventable death

Part 3The Lost Children: Change on horizon for First Nations child welfare

Mona Sock, a life stolen by abuse

Part 4The Lost Children: Government weighs privacy over transparency in child deaths

Baby Russell: A few minutes of life, then a knife in the heart

Do you have a tip about this story? Get in touch with CBC New Brunswick Investigates by clicking here.

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