POLITICS

Incoming premier of Newfoundland and Labrador to review child death reporting

09/25/2014 01:39 EDT | Updated 11/25/2014 05:59 EST
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Newfoundland and Labrador's incoming premier says he's not convinced a new law is required to inform the child and youth advocate whenever children receiving protective care die.

But Paul Davis says he'll review any request from Carol Chafe to change how such deaths are reported.

"I'm not sure legislation is necessary, but I'd want to consider all the facts before I make that decision," he said Thursday in an interview.

Since June, Chafe has called for new legislation to ensure she's promptly told of any death or critical incident involving children and youth so she can follow up.

Chafe has relied in the past on media reports or complaints to learn of such incidents. She is now writing to Davis to press for new legislation to compel government departments to notify her.

Liberal and NDP opposition parties support the move, as did Steve Kent and John Ottenheimer, both of whom ran against Davis for leadership of the governing Progressive Conservatives.

Davis won at a convention Sept. 13 and will be sworn in as premier Friday.

Chafe said in an interview that she was unaware of most of the 35 deaths since 2009 that the province confirmed through an access to information request. She is now reviewing those files on top of six other investigations, including four deaths, now underway.

The 35 cases involved children and youth, from infants to the age of 21, receiving various government services. Their deaths were blamed on medical issues, accidental causes or suicide.

Sandy Collins, the minister of child, youth and family services, said of 33 deaths reported as part of the access request, all but three clients lived with their families. Those three were in provincial custody but died in hospital of medical conditions, not in foster homes, he explained.

Two more deaths since early August involved another child who was living with parents and a youth who had signed a voluntary agreement for help with housing and life skills shortly before dying, the department confirmed Thursday.

Chafe said those are the only two deaths she has learned of directly from government since she took the job in 2010.

The province has revamped its child welfare laws, protocols and training while adding more staff in recent years. But Chafe has repeatedly pointed out communication breakdowns, lax documentation and policy breaches that have let down vulnerable kids who needed help.

The heavily redacted documents released as part of the access to information request hint at more of the same.

Partially blacked out records refer to missing risk assessments and failure to comply with mandated management systems.

A lack of national data makes it tough to assess how the rate of deaths under protective care in Newfoundland and Labrador compares to other provinces.

No one is keeping track across the country, said Nico Trocme, director of McGill University's School of Social Work in Montreal. Moreover, provinces and territories have not agreed on a single method for recording deaths, he said.

"A number of us have been encouraging provinces to do that but there really isn't a structure in place."

Trocme said it's vital that all child deaths involving government services be systematically assessed by an independent panel of pediatric and other experts.

Davis said Newfoundland and Labrador's new child death review committee will look into cases provided by the chief medical examiner involving children under 19. The panel includes the examiner as well as pediatric and social work specialists.

But some cases may escape its scrutiny, said the department of Child, Youth and Family Services. That's because the chief medical examiner reviews deaths of children who die while in the custody of a manager under the Children and Youth Care and Protection Act — but not necessarily those receiving government services who died while living with a parent or guardian.

Andrew Parsons, the Liberal critic for child, youth and family services, said Chafe needs new legislation to alert her to deaths as well as critical incidents such as sexual abuse.

"We see anything that's going to strengthen her ability to do her job as the advocate for children and youth as a must. Yet, the premier doesn't see it as necessary," he said. "It's reprehensible, really."

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