Positive change is far overdue in Alberta's child welfare system

by Mark Zaugg 10. January 2014 08:42

When Karen Kleiss and Darcy Henton wrote their Fatal Care series, I felt devastated, sad and very angry.  I knew I had to write about my feelings over it, I had no idea what to say or even how to go about saying it.

Now there are further details of deaths outside of the parameters of the Fatal Care series.  The deaths of 741 Albertans troubles me deeply.  I'm appalled they were children or young adults.  I'm sickened because children taken into the child welfare system are supposed to be there for their own safety and protection.  Children enter the child welfare system for serious reasons.  It happens by the authority of the Government of Alberta, which is supposed to be on behalf of all of us.

I want to believe that a child would only enter the system when they were in a situation of little hope, given a chance to excel and become one of the very friends and neighbours I value.  I know the struggles and sacrifice a couple endures just to be willing to open their home to a foster child.  I want to believe every foster parent meets the standard of adoptive and foster parents I have known through the years.  I want to believe every child that enters the system has a chance to graduate and find a career that suits them and affords them a life of happiness.

I know that no matter how altruistic I could feel on my very best and most selfless day, I would never be capable or willing to take on the role of Foster Parent.  In no way am I diminishing those who excel at making childhood better.  It must be a very, very hard job that must be equally rewarding or no one would ever bother.

I'm far from surprised there have been problems with the child welfare system.  It's not a far stretch for the imagination to make.  We knew of 56 official deaths of children while in care, those are the children that we were told "fell through the cracks."  Learning the number was higher thanks to the Fatal Care series was shocking, but believable.  I can't think of any parent who would be pleased to have a child enter the system.  No parent would want a case worker to show up on your doorstep unannounced for any reason.  It is not a place you want your loved ones to be.  Knowing the problem is much more wide-ranging than we thought even two months ago is heartbreaking.


There is a very simple rule in Information Technology: Be cautious about what you choose to measure.  The metrics you use will be far less meaningful if they are measuring the wrong thing, or focus too much on one facet and neglect a more important piece of the puzzle, or if the measurement itself can be gamed.  Now we learn the government was not adequately tracking the numbers and could not even answer Ms. Kleiss's question of how many children had died in foster care or after they were involved with the child welfare system.  This has been an epic failure to collect and process data, and we are all the more ignorant because of it.

That's just not acceptable in this province.

These are not simple situations.  You don't wind up in the child welfare system because you forgot to brush your teeth after dinner.  I will not simplify what surely must be complex and broad-reaching decisions, nor will I demand a simplistic resignation of a current or past minister.  That has to be a tough, tough position to hold and I sincerely thank those who have been willing to take up the role.  On the other hand, I will not accept another study on the matter that gets stuffed up on a shelf and gets left on a pile of other ignored studies; Alberta's children deserve better.  Neither shall I minimize the role the child welfare system plays in saving children's lives every day in this province.  There have been 741 tragically unacceptable outcomes since 1999, but I still do not have a clue of the total scale of the problem.

Karen Kleiss and Darcy Henton had to scratch and fight for every scrap of information every step of the way.  That was flat out unacceptable.  Ministers and spokespeople hid behind privacy laws and barred parents from talking about their own children's deaths.  That is unconscionable.  My deepest gratitude for their persistence and starting what I hope is the start of reform.

I do have some credit to offer.  I was pleased with Heather Forsyth's call for a public enquiry.  She will understand much better than I the issues involved and it takes considerable courage to step forward and look for ways to make improvements - particularly with the possibility of exposing past mistakes.  I'm grateful for her insight and would do whatever I can to assist.

I was extremely pleased to read Manmeet Bhullar's stance on making data public today.  He said, “I strongly believe that better and more data leads to better decision-making."  I agree, this is a great start.  I also insist that this problem has been created over fourteen years of not being forthright and honest and Mr. Bhullar has a deep deficit to overcome.  We can overcome it, though.  We must work together, using our best and brightest, and we must resolve the problem of children dying while in Provincial care, but also the obfuscation and lack of transparency that has masked the true extent and has prevented an honest and open look at making lives better.

This problem was created over fourteen years.  We do not have fourteen more years to solve it.  Lives are literally on the line.

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