New Brunswick·CBC Investigates

Government to release previously-secret details on child deaths

The stories of dozens of children under government care have stayed secret for decades. That is finally starting to change.

Overhaul of child death review system follows a CBC News investigation called The Lost Children

Chief coroner Gregory Forestell says changes to the child death review committee will make the process more transparent. (CBC)

The government has partially lifted a veil of secrecy over the stories of children who died under the watch of child protection officials.

The chief coroner announced an overhaul of New Brunswick's child death review committee on Wednesday, committing to a new process that will see summaries of children's deaths made public.

The children will still be anonymous, but the public will now know details like the child's age, cause and circumstances of death and whether the child was in care or receiving services from child welfare officials.

"I believe this is a step forward and a very positive step," child and youth advocate Norm Bossé said.

"How it all plays out in the future, we will have to wait and see."

For decades, the children's stories — how they died and if anything could have been done to save them — have been secret, a CBC News investigation called The Lost Children found.

Now, that is beginning to change, putting New Brunswick in line with provinces like Alberta that have more detailed public reporting.

At least 57 children have died from unnatural causes under the watch of social services in the past two decades.

This portrait of Jackie Brewer is engraved into a monument in memory of Jackie and John Ryan Turner, who died from abuse and neglect. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

The child death review committee was created in 1997 after 28-month-old Jackie Brewer was left to die of dehydration in a dark Saint John room.

Twenty years ago this month, people gathered outside the courthouse, angry at what happened to the little girl.

Jackie's aunt, along with family members of other children, have said the committee lost its original purpose in the years since Jackie's death.

Public can track what government does

The government promised to make its child death review system more transparent following The Lost Children series. 

On Wednesday, chief coroner Gregory Forestell revealed a new terms of reference for the child death review committee that adds new responsibilities around informing the public.

In addition to more public reporting, people will be able to track the status of child death recommendations online. It will be updated quarterly to reflect any changes by government.

"If we were to make a recommendation and the ministry responded that they would take this under advisement, that's a response," Forestell said.

"But that's not a satisfactory response."

Forestell said the changes will make the review process stronger and more transparent.

Reports won't point fingers

Child, youth and seniors' advocate Norm Bossé is optimistic about changes to the child death review committee. (CBC)
The children will still be anonymous in the reports. Privacy law prevents the government from revealing their identities.

The reports also may not go into detail on cases where the system failed a child. Its terms of reference prevents the committee from commenting on "the conduct of individual employees." 

But the coroner will be able to flag cases with systemic failures to Bossé for further investigation.

The reports will also be written in clearer language so it's easier to understand what happened. Even Bossé couldn't understand them sometimes.

He hopes the end result will be a more informed public.

"An informed public is a public that can sometimes prevent things from happening," he said.

"Child deaths just happens to be one of them."

Suicide, homicide and accidents

The government also revealed more details about how children have died.

Of 23 unnatural deaths between 2010 and 2016, twelve of those deaths have been deemed accidents. Another four children died by suicide.

One case was a homicide and the cause of another six deaths are undetermined.

Twenty-two children died from natural causes.

The chief coroner will release a regular reports on child deaths, including an annual statistical report that details how children are dying.

Part 1The Lost Children: The secret life of death by neglect

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

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Corrections

  • In a previous version of this story, CBC News reported that 57 children died from unnatural causes under the watch of social services since 2010. In fact, it was in the past two decades.
    Dec 21, 2017 7:57 AM AT