09/24/2014 02:24 EDT | Updated 11/24/2014 05:59 EST

Newfoundland and Labrador child advocate not aware of most deaths since 2009

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - It should not have required an access to information request to reveal that 35 children receiving government services have died since 2009, says Newfoundland and Labrador's child and youth advocate.

"I really feel that I should have known those from Day 1," Carol Chafe said Wednesday in an interview. "I've only been notified of two of those directly from the department of Child, Youth and Family Services."

"If I don't receive notification when a death occurs, or a critical incident, then I'm really not fulfilling my mandate."

Chafe said she was shocked when the department revealed in August that 26 children under the age of 18 had died since 2009 of illness, accidents or suicide. The numbers were released at the time in response to an access to information request filed by a CBC reporter.

Chafe was already investigating six cases, including four deaths, that had come to her attention through media coverage or complaints.

Sandy Collins, the minister of child and family services, said Wednesday that his department has just confirmed nine more deaths since 2009. Two occurred since August and were immediately reported to Chafe as part of a verbal agreement to keep her better informed, he said.

The other seven were caught as part of a refined search in response to the access to information request, he said.

One of those involved a client over the age of 18 who wasn't captured in the initial search terms, Collins explained. Of the remaining six, four died of medical conditions and two were accidental deaths involving children or youth who all lived with their families, he said.

Context is key, Collins stressed.

"If there was anything suspicious thought at the time, the RCMP or RNC (Royal Newfoundland Constabulary) would have been involved," he said in an interview.

"We're talking about other situations where it could be a child that was in palliative care and passed because of cancer or some medical condition."

Collins said a new notification process since March ensures the death of any child in government custody or care moves from the front lines up to his office, whether an official report is warranted or not.

"If anything untoward is suspected, there's a process in place to address that."

Still, Chafe called last June for legislation requiring provincial departments to promptly inform her of any death or critical incident involving young people receiving government care.

Chafe said the absence of any duty to notify her is a major gap in otherwise strong child welfare laws.

"I have to represent the rights of all children and youth in Newfoundland and Labrador. Right now, I can only do that for the children and youth that I'm aware of that need me to do that."

The province has revamped its child protection services and hired more social workers in recent years, creating the department Collins now heads. The 2003 death of 13-month-old Zachary Turner, ruled a murder-suicide involving his mother, Shirley Turner, put the provincial child welfare system under intense scrutiny.

Zachary drowned Aug. 18, 2003 when Turner jumped into the the North Atlantic near Conception Bay South, N.L., as she held her son. At the time, she was wanted in the U.S. to face trial for the murder of the child's father, Andrew Bagby.

A three-volume report released in 2006 by coroner Peter Markesteyn blamed flaws in the province's social services system for Zachary's preventable death.

Successive ministers of child, youth and family services have touted changes made since then but Chafe has repeatedly criticized reporting lapses and policy breaches that undermine care.

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