New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

Most child deaths were 'accidents,' minister says

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman says CBC News questions about child deaths and the sparse public record of them are too focused on “the negative side of things.”

'New Brunswick is probably leading the country in a lot of the policies that protect children'

New Brunswick Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman says the province already has the best child protection policies in the country. (CBC)

The New Brunswick government is "open" to providing more information about child deaths, says Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman.

But Horsman stopped short Tuesday of promising specific changes, saying the province is already "leading the country" when it comes to protecting children.

A CBC News investigation has found that at least 53 children known to child protection officials have died from unnatural causes in the last two decades.

How those children died or whether anything could have been done to prevent their deaths remains unknown.

Horsman downplayed the results of CBC's investigation when he spoke to reporters at an unrelated public event on Tuesday.

"The public needs to know those aren't tragic deaths," said the minister, whose office did not respond to interview requests sent since January.

"I'm probably not saying this right, but they were accidents, they were medical."

In fact, the series has highlighted several preventable deaths, and there are others among the 53 unnatural deaths that involved abuse or neglect.

Horsman said privacy legislation prevents government from saying more about how at-risk children are dying.

He also asked why questions from CBC News about child deaths have focused on "the negative side of things."

"We're doing a lot of great work here and you're bringing up stories that are 13, 20 years ago."

Privacy concerns

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman questioned why CBC News was writing about deaths that happened 13 years ago. Juli-Anna St. Peter died from a perforated bowel in 2004, despite multiple complaints to Social Services. (CBC)
The provincial government says it can't talk about how children are dying because a person's cause of death is considered personal health information.

"We have to abide by the privacy laws," said Horsman, who is also deputy premier.

The government has also said reports by a committee that reviews child deaths can't be released because they're considered confidential "advice to minister."

Only the report's recommendations are made public, although they often don't make sense without context.

It means the public has no way of knowing the findings of New Brunswick's child death review committee. 

It also has no way of knowing what changes have been made as a result of the committee's recommendations.

New Brunswick child and youth advocate Norm Bossé has called for more public information on child deaths.

"To say that this is private information, I really don't understand their argument there," Bossé said.

'Probably leading the country'

Bernard Richard, now the representative for children and youth in British Columbia, warned that New Brunswick must put more resources into detecting child neglect. (CBC)
Bossé is joined by former child and youth advocate Bernard Richard, who argues that children who die in care shouldn't be anonymous. He is now the representative for children and youth in British Columbia.

"One of the things that is encouraging in this province is there is much more transparency when a child in care dies as a result of whatever circumstances," Richard said.

When asked whether New Brunswick could reveal more details of child deaths without breaking the law, Horsman said the government will "look at everything" but has already "done so much."

"As a matter of fact, New Brunswick is probably leading the country in a lot of the policies that protect children," Horsman said.

"They're looking to New Brunswick. We think we're doing the best at this point and we'll continue to enhance it. If people have better ways of doing things, we're open to suggestions."


Do you want to hear Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman answer CBC questions about The Lost Children series? You can click on the video player below. You can follow along in the transcript and use the time codes to skip to specific answers that you want to hear.

Here's the full scrum where families and children minister Stephen Horsman discusses reports about children dying while in New Brunswick care. 9:52

Full transcript: 

CBC: Minister, we spoke a couple weeks ago about children who are dying in care in New Brunswick. We've had some stories come out since then. I just wanted to have a conversation with you about how much information you think the public should know and whether there's any movement from the government on that.

Begins at 0:16 The last time we talked, and we talked for five or 10 minutes, and all I got was the negative side of things. I want you to know the people do great work here. You mentioned the number, I think 153 or 154. I think the public needs to know those aren't tragic deaths. I'm probably not saying this right, but they were accidents, they were medical. The 154, you're probably talking about very, very few unfortunately that came into our care.

Begins at 0:47 We're doing a lot of great work here and you're bringing up stories that are 13, 20 years ago. We've done great work. I'll give you an example. In just the last five years, we've revamped the whole initiatives on what social workers do, their training. We talked to our stakeholders on how we best...and we've committed 100 per cent on any actions from the coroner's office or the child youth - the child death committee, anything they propose or they suggested, we've done. We've acted on those. 100 per cent.

To say we're not doing anything or we're just being laid back or we haven't reached our goals, I think that's very unfair to say. I want to thank the people, our social workers are better. We've enhanced our social workers program. We've hired more social workers to be on the ground. They get better training.

Begins at 1:43 We just can't go into people's homes and do what the public thinks we need to do. It's unfortunate but there are laws. There's privacy laws. We have to abide by those. I was coming another event. You kind of blindsided me a little bit. But that's fine. But I think we're doing great work. A lot of things are happening and will continue to happen.

Look, I'm very remorseful of the past. I came into government for two and a half years. I'm learning a new trade. But I want to make sure that people know that the minister (myself) and our Department of Social Development are doing everything we can and we continue do what we can to betterment of the child. That's the number one priority is families and children. Especially children. We will continue to do that. As long as I'm minister, and I know the premier feels the same way, families and children are our priority.

CBC: You say that many of these were "accidents." But we know that at least 53 were unnatural deaths. We don't know anything beyond that how these children died. Do you think the public deserves to know how these kids are dying?

Begins at 2:47 Again, we have laws to adhere to too. The privacy laws. We have to inform the families and children of those children and we're very remorseful of that. Don't think we just go around...we feel terrible about these accidents. But we need to learn from these incidents.

If you're talking about 53, I'm not sure what the numbers are to be exact. But if something does happen and it happens within our care, we want to learn from that so it doesn't happen again. We know these are tragic incidents. We feel remorseful. Any government, whether it's today or the past or the future, they don't want these things to happen. We will continue to do that, to work hard, to let the families and children of the children know.

Now, you're talking about the general public, look, we have to abide by the privacy laws. Our main focus is the families. If we want to give that information to families, we're going to do, we still do today. If they want to share it with the public, that will be up to them. But again, we have to abide by the laws that we are focused by.

Begins at 3:51 Every time the minister or somebody from the opposition asks me specifically about something, you know, I can't talk about that or they're going to want my chair. We want to be transparent as much as we can. Now, we want to have open communication.

If the public wants more information on that, look, we're open to that. We've always been open to bettering the system. As a minister, I want to do that. The policies that have been set maybe are 50 or 60 years old. We have to update them. We have to modernize those policies to encourage better involvement of the public. We have to abide by laws.

CBC: I understand that.

I hope that message gets out.

CBC: Right. We've spoken to families, we've spoken to the child and youth advocate, the former child and youth advocate, the opposition, the Green Party and heard from several members of the public over the last 24 hours, who say we want to know more because we care about how these children are dying. How do you respond to that?

I respond to that with, look, if you have any information they want to share, we think we can do it better, please come to us.

Begins at 4:56 I have yet to see Mr. Coon come to my office and ask for that. I don't know if he's grandstanding or being political about it but I have never had him come to my office and ask for this. If he has, we will certainly sit down. There's nothing we can't do by sitting around a table together and coming up with betterment of a system, betterment of a policy. I look forward to that we have that kind of information.

But other provinces have found a way to respect privacy while also telling the public, here's what happened to this at-risk child who died. Why can't we do that too?

Begins at 5:25 Again, we will look at everything. We've done so much. As a matter of fact, New Brunswick is probably leading the country in a lot of the policies that protect children. They're looking to New Brunswick. We think we're doing the best at this point and we'll continue to enhance it. If people have better ways of doing things, we're open to suggestions.

CBC: But how is the public supposed to know how well you're doing things if they have no access to the process of child death reviews?

I'm not sure what your question is. How does the public…

CBC: So if the public has no access to these child death reviews that you're doing and the findings you're coming up with, how are they supposed to be content with what's been done?

Begins at 6:07 But again, we just can't give that information out. There's laws.

CBC: Can you change the law?

If we sit down with people and look at better ways of doing things, we'll certainly be open to doing that.

CBC: They changed the law in Alberta several years ago.

Begins at 6:20 This is New Brunswick. We do the very best here in New Brunswick and I think we are leading Canada. Other provinces are looking to New Brunswick at what they're doing .Other provinces still have privacy laws. We'll adhere to those laws.

CBC: Is there a way we could have more follow-up, so when you make these recommendations, we have a sense of what's been implemented and what's been done over the years?

Well, again, as a minister of social development, these implementations come from other provinces. Justice and Public Safety. The Coroner's Act falls under that. The child death review committee all falls under there. We want to make sure the information we get, we will certainly adhere to the families.

That's our main goal, is the protection of children and families. We will be welcome to anybody who comes up with a better solution.

CBC: I understand that. I just want to run one story by you. One of the stories we've reported this week is Mona Sock. Mona took her own life-

13 years ago.

CBC: Exactly. But what the public did not know at the time because of the way the system works that Mona was living in a home with a convicted sex offender. Do you think it's right that we're missing that kind of context, those kind of details?

People work with social workers. They're human beings. They do great work. A lot of the armchair quarterbacking after the fact. But I think people need to realize that people here are doing the best with what they have to do. This happened 13 years ago. So again, we've revamped. We've done a lot of good work so that this doesn't happen again. People are human. These are tragic events. We're going to learn from those so it doesn't hopefully happen again.

CBC: How can you prove that this has not happened again, there than your word? What system is in place that we can verify that this has not happened again with Mona Sock?

Begins at 8:11 To answer your question, I can't. What's happened in the past, we've done so much good work in the last 5 years. We've revamped  the whole system. We've hired more social workers so people can have a better understanding of what's really going on out there. They're out in the field, working with clients.

So as a government, we're very proud of that. Other provinces are looking to New Brunswick with what they're doing.

CBC: But you can't show us that it hasn't happened again. You can't prove that to us.

Can you show me that it has happened?

CBC: I'm asking you. It's your department.

Begins at 8:39 But again, it doesn't just fall under social development. It's Justice and Public Safety. Every accident or every death for a minor from 19 years and under is investigated by the Coroner's Act. We continue to do that. We will make sure nothing comes into effect where this will happen again. We will learn from those mistakes.

CBC: Just to back up on a point you mentioned earlier. Just to clarify, did you state that every one of the recommendations that's made by the child death review committee has been put in place by the government?

Begins at 9:11 No, I never said that. I said acted upon. 100 per cent of the recommendations by the child death review committee and the coroner's office, we have acted on those.

Can you clarify what you mean by acted on?

We've hired more social workers to make sure they get out there, that they're doing their job. Better training for social workers. Those are things we've been doing that we're very proud of. We'll continue to do that.

It's good that people are bringing this up over and over again because we have to be reminded. But we are doing good work and we'll continue to do good work. I'm very proud of the work that social development and Justice and Public Safety and all of government are doing. We all have to work in this together.

Thanks very much.