By Jeremy Appel, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Alberta Native News
The 2014 death of a four-year-old Cree girl in Maskwacis was the result of her being taken away from her mother by the child welfare system, a judge has ruled following a fatality inquiry.
The girl, referred to pseudonymously as ‘Serenity,’ sustained a major head injury after falling off a swing while she and two of her siblings were in the care of her great aunt and uncle in September 2014.
“What led up to her death started the day she was removed from the care of her mother … on Jan. 11, 2011,” Alberta Judge Renee Cochard said in a report released Jan. 4.
There’s no evidence Serenity was being cared for improperly by her mother, Cochard added. Serenity and her siblings were taken away from their mother due to an abusive partner.
The report found that Serenity’s health declined after being put into foster care.
“Serenity was growing, found to be healthy by the nurse and had a mother who was concerned about her daughter’s well-being while having to cope with the fact that her two older children … had been apprehended from her care,” Cochard said.
Her guardians were criminally charged in 2017 with failing to provide the necessities of life, although those charges were stayed in 2019 after the Crown determined there was no reasonable prospect of conviction.
The inquiry involved testimony from 18 witnesses and the results of a preliminary inquiry, finding insufficient communication between the health-care and child welfare sectors, as well as a failure on the part of child welfare workers to catch warning signs of inadequate care.
According to the report, Serenity was taken to a doctor in July 2013 after a caseworker noted she was losing weight. The doctor shared the caseworker’s concern, but Serenity wasn’t taken to the doctor again.
After her fall from the swing, Serenity was taken to a hospital in Ponoka and then airlifted to Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, where she died.
In Ponoka, a doctor noted she was underweight and had a bruise on her cheek and genitals.
In Edmonton, a health-care worker said her being “extremely emaciated” may have played a role in the severity of her accident.
The judge’s report made 20 recommendations to prevent something like Serenity’s death from occurring again, including requiring medical examiners’ reports be conducted within six months, only taking children away from their parents as a last resort and that parents whose children have been taken away should have immediate access to Legal Aid.
It also suggested the government should provide foster parents and caregivers with the child’s medical history “in a timely manner.”
In the report, Cochard wrote that the funds spent on putting Serenity and her siblings into foster care should have been spent giving their mother the support she required.
“Children’s services has spent thousands of dollars keeping these children away from their mother,” Cochard said. “They have spent resources on foster care, drivers, support workers for foster parents, special investigators, and the whole administrative machine of children’s services.
“Had this money been spent on providing services to [redacted], such as childcare support, a home, proper financial help, so that she did not have to live in a basement and educational support, the inquiry’s view is that the end result would have been much different.”
She said it appears that the “default position” of Children’s Services is to take children away from their parents.
Serenity’s mother told APTN News she shares this view.
“If there were the proper support, I think things could have been handled way different. I do agree that they did spend a lot of money trying to keep my kids from me,” the mother, who now lives in B.C., said.
However, she didn’t express confidence that these recommendations would actually get implemented.
“Our younger generation – they aren’t going to do better if the system doesn’t do better,” the mother told the CBC.
In a Jan. 4 statement following the release of the inquiry report, Minister of Children’s Services Mickey Amery said “substantial changes have been made to help prevent this tragedy from happening again.”
In 2019, the UCP government passed Serenity’s Law, which allows adults with knowledge that a child is being abused to report it to police, rather than a child welfare director. It also increased the penalty for failing to report child abuse from $2,000 to $10,000 and upwards of six months in jail.
“We will continue to make and support improvements going forward, including reviewing the fatality inquiry judge’s recommendations with all of the seriousness this death deserves,” Amery said.
The minister claimed in his statement that the government has implemented “every recommendation” the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate and the Office of the Statutory Director made in the wake of Serenity’s death.
In January 2022, outgoing child and youth advocate Dale Graff called on the provincial government to publicly disclose which of his recommendations have been implemented.
A committee vote put forward by NDP MLA Heather Sweet to summon ministers to hear an update on their progress was quashed 6-4. Amery was one of the MLAs to vote against it.