Slow change for children in care

Advocate presses for better communication between agencies

The Child and Youth Advocate’s investigation into the death of a 14-day-old girl released May 5 concluded that though the cause of her death is undetermined there were many things Child Intervention Services (CIS) and Alberta Health Services should have done better. Yet the recommendations in Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff’s report into the death of “Baby Annie” are nothing new. Most revolve around the idea that government services to protect children in dangerous family settings must be more collaborative. Those recommendations are echoed in three other investigations conducted by the advocate within the last year related to deaths of children in some form of government care as well as in reports and studies on Alberta’s Child and Family Services stretching back years.

Baby Annie (not her real name) was her parents’ 12th child (their fifth together). Her family had a long history of contact with family protective services yet a lack of communication between branches of service led to Annie being in her parents’ care immediately after birth even though none of their other children were in their care at that time. The report found she received insufficient piecemeal followup by the government in the weeks before her mother discovered her dead in her car seat.

“We’ve got a family who has complex and multiple needs and that results in a number of service providers both in the social services sector and in the health sector. And those service providers have portions of information but none of them have kind of the full story or understanding of what’s taking place either with the child or with the family. And they don’t share the portions of information that they have. Decision-making can be a challenge because of that. And that’s a consistent thing that we see over and over again” says Graff.

“We have seen this theme of the need for collaboration in these extreme circumstances as being less than what we would hope for and in this circumstance with this infant it was pretty clear that had the social services people and the health people talked about what they knew that the planning to support this infant might have been different” he says.

The Alberta government has been receptive to Graff’s and others’ calls for improvement. In 2009 a review panel was formed to identify strengths and weaknesses in the system. The panel’s work resulted in a 2010 report itself leading to a 2011 external review panel a January 2014 public roundtable and a Child and Family Services Council for Quality Assurance that is currently working on how to implement Human Services Minister Manmeet Bhullar’s five-point plan to build a system of continuous improvement in the child intervention system.

Due to all the work on the same set of questions the government has developed an information-sharing strategy amended the Child and Youth Advocate Act and tabled the Children’s First Act all aimed at increasing the system’s ability to share information on families in contact with intervention services and to monitor the system for quality assurance. Graff wonders why greater improvement isn’t already evident with so much attention on the problem.

Where there has been change there are new challenges. Graff has repeatedly stressed the need for CIS to find ways to keep at risk children with their families and cultures rather than placing them with strangers or in institutional care. He says research has made it clear that children develop better when they have long-term relationships with their kin. This change has been happening. Baby Annie’s siblings were repeatedly returned to their parents and lived off and on with relatives under government kinship care orders.

Dr. Gayla Rogers a former dean in the University of Calgary’s faculty of social work and current member of the Child and Family Services Council for Quality Assurance says problems arise when relationships are maintained with parents who may have a history of addiction issues or abuse. There are also difficulties for relatives who take on the children as they also stay in contact with the child’s parents and are torn between helping both parties.

“There’s no perfect way of dealing with children in need of protection and ensuring child safety and at the same time ensuring a child has contact with their family” Rogers says.

“Developmentally what’s in the best interests of the child often has to do with some form of contact with their family. These situations have to be assessed each case on its own looking at a very complicated set of factors. You often never have enough information but we do know that [the] number 1 priority is safety and number 2 priority is family so reconciling these two things and keeping children with their kin is a fundamental principle” she says.