EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Rachel Notley says her government withheld critical details surrounding the death of a child in care to protect the integrity of an ongoing police investigation.
Notley told the legislature Monday that work continues in the case of the four-year-old girl named Serenity, and that the government is committed to making the system safer.
"Unfortunately, what we were advised is that because the matter is still under active criminal investigation the medical examiner was asked not to disclose or release the (autopsy) report,'' Notley told the house, responding to opposition questions.
"Work continues on this matter and we are committed to ensuring that the tragedy experienced not only by Serenity but by other children in the system are properly addressed.''
Notley made the comments prior to an emergency debate to explore problems and suggest solutions surrounding the death.
The case became public last week when Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff urged better safeguards in kinship placements after the malnourished, bruised and severely underweight girl died in 2014.
Subsequent media reports have detailed medical records denied to Graff that revealed the girl's body showed signs of physical and sexual abuse and that she had suffered a massive brain injury.
Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff urged better safeguards in kinship placements after the malnourished, bruised and severely underweight girl died in 2014. (Photo: Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)
"A system that operates in secrecy is going to continue to fail our children,'' Wildrose Leader Brian Jean told the house.
"Serenity was physically and sexually abused by those who were supposed to care for her.
"She was 18 pounds when she died, and this happened in part because in the final 11 months of Serenity's life, no (government care) workers checked in on her.''
Serenity died while under kinship care, which places children not in foster care but in the care of other family members.
"...in the final 11 months of Serenity's life, no (government care) workers checked in on her."
Notley said since the death changes have been made to the system.
"Work has already been ongoing to improve oversight of kinship care placements (and) to increase resources in that area,'' she said.
"I know that the people who work on the front lines try every day to keep children safe.''
Security checks lacking
Graff's report, issued Nov. 15, stated that the girl was born to First Nations parents and placed in kinship care on a central Alberta reserve after her birth father was found to be abusive to the birth mother. The birth mother was a drug abuser at the time.
The main guardians underwent security checks, but not other adults in the home.
Soon after, said Graff, there were reports that Serenity was not well, was undernourished, and had bruises. The birth mother asked for Serenity, and the two half-siblings with her, be moved to foster care.
A caseworker could not substantiate her concerns and the case was closed, said Graff.
In September of 2014, according to the medical reports released not to Graff but the media, Serenity was taken to hospital in central Alberta with dilated pupils, severely underweight, hypothermic, and with multiple bruises, including around her pubic area.
She had a massive brain injury, was put on life support and died soon after.
Her guardians said she fell off a swing.
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The following signs may indicate the possibility of child abuse, according to the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre:
Unexplained bruises or injuries, especially in places of the body that children do not normally injure during regular play or movement
A child who is continually hungry, unsuitably dressed for the weather and/or always dirty
Burns which leave a pattern outlining the object which was used to make the burn, such as a cigarette, an iron or an electric stove burner, burns on the hands, feet or buttocks caused by scalding water and rope burns caused by being tied
A young child who is often left alone
A child who is unusually aggressive, angry and hostile to other people
A child who demonstrates withdrawn behaviour, who refuses to participate or dress appropriately for physical activities
A child who shows unusual knowledge of sexual matters beyond their age of development, who exhibits sexualized behaviour around adults or other children
A child who hints or talks overtly about sexual abuse
An adolescent who is extremely withdrawn or aggressive
A child or adolescent who repeatedly runs away from home