Paula Simons: Will our political leaders allow Serenity's death to be in vain?
Published on: December 9, 2016 | Last Updated: December 9, 2016 7:39 PM MST
Her name was Serenity.
She wasn’t a political cause. She was a four-year-old child of Alberta, a First Nations girl, who died terribly in 2014, a death for which no person or government agency has been held accountable.
Since the story of Serenity’s short, tragic life became public, she’s become both a symbol of everything that’s wrong with our dysfunctional child welfare system, and everything that’s wrong with our dysfunctional legislature.
The death of Serenity, here a happy toddler riding her trike, has prompted MLAs to form an all-party committee to look into the child welfare system in Alberta. SUPPLIED
In the last few weeks, we’ve seen the Notley government and Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir dodge, weave and duck hard questions, sounding every bit as defensive, obdurate and heartless as the Conservative government before them. We’ve seen the Wildrose making hay, thundering righteously about government mistakes, calling fiercely for Sabir’s resignation. And, almost ludicrously, we’ve seen the Tories demanding changes to the system — without acknowledging they’re the ones who left it broken.
None of this gets us anywhere. Forget the partisan gamesmanship. It’s time to recognize that over generations, we’ve all allowed the creation of an entrenched child welfare bureaucracy that seems more committed to protecting itself than protecting vulnerable children.
Our system has been broken for decades. And our aboriginal child welfare policy has been a disaster since the first residential school opened. But problems escalated under Ralph Klein when social spending was slashed and the government started privatizing the child welfare system, contracting out to a patchwork of agencies, not-for-profit groups, regional offices and under-funded First Nations.
Not everything about the contracting-out model was bad. But there was never enough central oversight; and every time the province downloaded responsibility to a third party, it lessened not just its own control, but its own accountability. When something went wrong, a minister could always blame the frontline agency.
Then, the Conservatives brought in draconian laws that made it a crime to publish information that might identify a child who died in care. They allowed the development of a ludicrous child death review system with so many agencies in conflict, there was no accountability. And they pushed “kinship care” — keeping children together with extended families — a model that saved the province money and sounded politically fashionable, but that often placed kids in homes that had not been properly screened, with caregivers unequipped to care for them.
Between 1999 and 2013, 741 Alberta children died while in care or while receiving child welfare services. By cross-referencing news stories and various government reports, our Fatal Care investigative team was able to identify 63 of those children. The rest remain anonymous to this day — the faceless, nameless disappeared of Alberta. And until last month, Serenity was among them.
In the aftermath of Fatal Care, the province amended the law that penalized journalists who published the names of the dead. But it still refused to name the children. To this day, we can only print the names if we discover them by other investigative techniques. That’s how I was able to discover Serenity. Without her pictures, and her name, she’d have been another anonymous statistic. I’ve written columns about children who suffered abuse just as horrendous. But this story galvanized public reaction like no other — because you could see her face, you couldn’t look away.
When the NDP took power in May 2015, many hoped Premier Rachel Notley would address these injustices.
Since then, another 38 children receiving protective services have died. Almost none has been named. While the NDP committed to completing reports into those deaths, and publishing the recommendations, it has never ever done so.
This is a watershed moment. Will our political leaders have the guts and the principles to put aside partisan politics to serve Alberta’s kids?
Not long ago, I talked to one of the foster families that had cared for Serenity’s two older siblings. The woman told me that she tried to comfort herself with this bleak thought: Serenity’s death effectively rescued her surviving siblings from hellish abuse in the same “kinship care” home.
In saving her brother and sister, she felt Serenity’s sacrifice had not been in vain.
Please — let’s not let Serenity’s death be for nothing. Let’s not let the unprecedented public reaction to her death accomplish nothing. We have binders and binders full of thoughtful expert recommendations ready and waiting.
Will this finally be the moment that we act? Not just for Serenity — but for the hundreds and hundreds of other dead and abused children, whose names and stories we don’t yet know.