01/29/2014 03:24 EST | Updated 03/31/2014 05:59 EDT

Alberta Foster Care Deaths: Changes Coming To What Can Be Reported

Claudia Dewald via Getty Images
EDMONTON - Alberta's human services minister said Wednesday there will be changes to open up public reporting of deaths of children in government care.

"The bottom line is I commit to the release of information," Manmeet Bhullar said on the final day of a two-day discussion on the topic.

"I'm just asking the experts, 'How do we protect others in the system while we do it?'

"There are some pieces (of the existing legislation) that my gut says just don't make sense."

Bhullar and Premier Alison Redford sat in on the discussion with experts and policy-makers about how to change provincial laws to reveal more information about children who die in government care.

The talk was sparked by a Postmedia newspaper series late last year that revealed the province has used its privacy laws to avoid revealing the deaths of 89 children in care since 1999.

The laws currently prevent anyone — even the parents of a dead child — from speaking publicly about what happened.

Critics say those laws can be abused to cover up government neglect or negligence.

Bhullar recently revealed that there were hundreds more deaths of children who were not in direct care, but had been at one time, or who were in indirect care, or who had injuries under investigation.

With those figures added in, the total number of deaths since 1999 stands at 741 out of 275,000 children.

When asked why those numbers were not released previously, Redford said her government had to operate under existing privacy rules.

"From our perspective ... they were not appropriate rules, so the question today is: 'What should the rules be?' And we're going to make sure that we get there, that we implement those rules and that we can continue to improve the system," she said.

When asked why it took so long to realize the rules needed to be changed, Redford declined to answer, but reiterated her faith in Bhullar.

The discussion Wednesday focused on the privacy rules and the impact on families.

There was agreement that public disclosure is critical to fixing the system, but there was also concern that potential exploitative reporting could harm those it seeks to help.

One panellist, a young woman named Samantha, recounted her experiences with social workers who threatened to take her infant daughter away because she could not get the child to feed properly on formula.

Samantha said she tried soy milk and an expensive hypo-allergenic formula with little success.

"I was doing the best I could ... (but) I was told if I couldn't fix it that she would be removed from my care," said Samantha, who asked her last name not be published.

"My question (to social workers) was: 'What can you do better than me? If you remove her from my care, she's going to miss me. She's going to become upset. Is she really going to become healthier?'"

Samantha said her daughter started to thrive and wasn't taken away, but the woman speculated about what would have happened if her girl had been placed in foster care and died.

"If I was silenced, I would not know what to do with myself," she said.

"I don't think it's fair, just or right. And I also don't think that anybody else has the right to decide whether or not my story is shared, or her story is shared."

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