Simons: I so desperately wanted to cheer this new legislation.
Paula Simons: Child death review legislation a betrayal of public trust
Published on: May 30, 2017 | Last Updated: May 30, 2017 7:07 PM MDT
Alberta’s Child Protection and Accountability Act
Danielle Larivee (Alberta Children’s Services Minister) tabled the Child Protection and Accountability Act at the Alberta Legislature on Tuesday May 30, 2017.
I have to say this for the Notley government. They don’t waste time.
It’s been just six weeks since the all-party child death review panel tabled its recommendations to improve Alberta’s deeply dysfunctional child death review system. Yet on Tuesday, the NDP tabled its new child death review legislation.
But for all the rush, the legislation is a crushing disappointment. Far from making the system more transparent and accountable, it enshrines a whole new level of secrecy. It makes a mockery of everything this all-party panel was supposed to accomplish.
Bill 18, the Child Protection and Accountability Act, is a sweeping and radical change to the way we investigate the deaths of children in care in the province.
Under Bill 18, Alberta’s child and youth advocate, an independent officer of the legislature, would be mandated to investigate the death of every child in care, and every child, up to the age of 20, who had received some kind of child welfare services within two years of his or her death.
That sounds splendid. But the devil is in the details.
The current advocate, Del Graff, picks out a few particularly striking or disturbing fatalities every year, and writes an overview report about them, looking for patterns, looking for systemic weaknesses in the child welfare system. But his reports don’t hold anyone accountable for a particular child’s death. And they make only the broadest, non-specific recommendations.
Under Bill 18, his office would have to write a public report on every single death — last year, there were 26. Reports would have to offer specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-sensitive recommendations for change.
This would be a huge departure from past practice — and a huge increase in Graff’s caseload.
Add to that, the law also requires the office to complete all reports within a year of learning about a child’s death. Any delays would have to be justified to a committee of the legislature. That’s also a huge departure, since very few of Graff’s current reports are completed within a year.
Currently, the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate has an annual budget of $13.2 million and a staff of 67. But only seven of them are investigators. On Tuesday, Graff wouldn’t even hazard a guess about what kind of resources he’d need to fulfil his new duties properly.
Children’s Services Minister Danielle Larivee declined Tuesday to discuss when, whether and how Graff’s budget and resources might change to keep up. But if the office doesn’t get more resources — quickly — how can it possibly fulfil its new mandate?
Graff’s other major concern? While the legislation requires all government departments to “respond” to his recommendations within 75 days, nothing in the law says they have to accept or act on those recommendations.
“The only vehicle I have to compel the government to act is public pressure,” says Graff. “Saying they have to ‘respond’ in 75 days is just not sufficient.”
But I have a far greater problem with Bill 18.
Under the Child and Youth Advocate Act, Graff is bound by extraordinarily strict privacy provisions. He cannot publish the name of a child who dies. He cannot make public any identifying information about the child, not even where he or she lived. That’s still true, even though the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act was amended in 2014 to allow the media to publish the names of children who died in care. The irony? I could publish Serenity’s name and photo. Graff couldn’t. He still can’t. And Bill 18 doesn’t change that.
Serenity, in a photo taken in February 2014, seven months before her death. SUPPLIED
Imperfect as our current system is, we do at least get to find out the names of some of the kids who’ve died in care, if and when there’s a public fatality inquiry into those deaths.
Bill 18, though, could dramatically reduce the number of deaths that are subject to public inquiries. The goal would be to have a Child and Youth Advocate report take the place of many fatality reviews, and not “duplicate” efforts.
The consequence? Fewer public inquiries in open courtrooms. More names kept secret. And fewer people held accountable.
I so desperately wanted to cheer this new legislation. I wanted to applaud the Notley government for streamlining the child death review system, empowering the child advocate, and holding the system accountable. Instead, Bill 18 seems to exploit the weaknesses of the child advocate’s office and legislation to reduce public accountability and curtail public scrutiny, all in the name of protecting the privacy of the dead.
Too bad we can’t protect them while they’re still alive.