01/09/2014 06:12 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Alberta Foster Children Deaths: Family Services Under-Funded, Lack Of Respect For Staff To Blame

Liberal leader David Swann announces his intentions to resign as leader after the 2011 Spring Session of the Alberta Legilslative Assembly (Photo taken February 1, 2011)

The hundreds of children who have died while being wards of, or supported by, the province were the victims of a system that is under-funded and mired in disrespect and awash in distrust, said Alberta Liberal critic David Swann.

The Calgary MLA told HuffPost Alberta that in the years he's followed the ministry of Family Services he has witnessed first hand a group of dedicated, caring workers who don't have the manpower, resources or the trust of its own managers to address social or domestic problems before they turn tragic.

"It's a very difficult challenge in any society, dealing with the most wounded and vulnerable children and I have the utmost respect for the workers who do a hero's work in a day without having the resources they need to do their jobs properly," he said.

The only way to address a faulty system that has, as of this weekend, seen 150 children die as wards of the province since 1999, is to empower staff and to fund them better, Swann adds.

And right now, according to the 2010 Corporate Employee Survey for Children and Youth Services, says Swann, Family Services front line staff feel anything but empowered.

"Almost half the staff feel disrespected within their own departments, half the staff feel left out of the decision-making process and nearly half of them don't have confidence in their management," said Swann.

Finally, better funding would allow front line workers to get to know families better, flag potential problems sooner and bring in specialists – councillors, psychologists, psychiatrists – in earlier and prevent problems from becoming tragedies, he said.

"The more Family Services staff can provide to families in need, the less likely that family will break apart, the less likely the child will end up in the system and the less likely that child will die (while being a ward of the province)," he said.

Swann's comments come after learning that the number of foster children who had died in Alberta since 1999 had grown to 150 from 145 after the province announced that a further four deaths had occurred in late 2013 and one more had taken place over the weekend.

Babies reportedly account for one third of those deaths.

A visually emotional Human Services minister Manmeet Bhullar on Wednesday also revealed that 592 more children, who were either receiving assistance from the province or who were being investigated for suspicious injuries while being fostered, also died between 1999 and 2013.

The total number of deaths of foster children was only made public after a years-long battle between the Government of Alberta and Postmedia. The province finally made the information available after it was ordered to do so by the information and privacy commissioner.

Now, the Alberta NDP is calling on the government to announce publicly, and investigate immediately, the death of any foster child. Apart from real-time reporting, the NDP also called for the immediate investigation of those deaths.

"This government constantly hides behind an overused piece of privacy legislation that is more focused on protecting the government than actually protecting children," said NDP Human Services critic Rachel Notley.

"This government cannot be trusted to look after our most vulnerable children when their focus is protecting their own image."

Meawhile, the Wildrose Party called for a full public inquiry into the deaths and into the system.

“These new numbers should be a wake-up call for the government to take whatever action is necessary to bring about the change we need to see," said Wildrose critic Jeff Wilson.

“Quite clearly, this is a system that is deeply flawed, resulting in untold pain, misery and grief for hundreds of Alberta families."

Swann said full disclosure in these matters is critical but unless the government rebuilds its trust with staff and fund the department properly, "the rest is just more talk."

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