• Child welfare agency contributed to death of 13-month-old girl on Alberta First Nations reserve, report alleges
Aug 27, 2013

A child welfare agency’s misdirected funds, poor file management, high staff turnover and inability to adhere to standards all contributed to the death of a 13-month-old girl on an Alberta First Nations reserve, according to a fatality inquiry report released Thursday.

The 10-page document listed numerous failures, including an overall lack of agency funding, that led to the death of Baby K., who cannot be identified under the province’s child welfare laws.

The toddler died of pneumonia in March 28, 2009, while she was was under the care of a foster mother who worked as a caseworker at the same child welfare agency that managed her file.

That day, Baby K. was taken to a hockey game, fed supper, changed into her bed clothes and put to sleep on a makeshift bed. About an hour later, her body was found lying face down, the report said.

The child had been in hospital at least 10 times prior to her death for numerous respiratory problems, including a previous case of pneumonia and a suspected bout of meningitis. However, the Kasohkowew Child Wellness Society (KCWS) — which manages child welfare in the Samson Cree First Nation — failed to inform the foster mother of Baby K’s health problems; it also broke with standards by failing to ensure the toddler was seen by a doctor after she was placed in care.

“An ordinary reasonable caregiver with average education would have sought medical intervention for a child with symptoms of pneumonia serious enough to have caused her death,” read the report, written by Judge Bart Rosborough. The judge made nine recommendations, including a call for better health-care training for foster parents.

However, the inquiry uncovered other problems at the Kasohkowew Child Wellness Society. The agency serves the notorious hamlet of Hobbema, which garnered national headlines in 2011 when the Samson Cree Chief’s grandson, five-year-old Ethan Yellowbird, was killed by a stray bullet.

KCWS faces an inordinately high caseload: Judge Rosborough noted that at the time of the inquiry, the Samson Cree Nation was home to 2,000 children: 322 of whom were under permanent guardianship orders.

The Judge noted a large disparity in funding between First Nations and non-First Nations children in the province, owing to a complicated funding arrangement between the federal and provincial governments. He noted a shortage of government funding, but also saw signs of misdirected funds at the time of Baby K’s death: staff members were sent on expensive out-of-country educational seminars and funds were diverted to activities described as “cultural activities,” in the report. These expenditures happened even as case workers were fired to meet budget targets.

Meanwhile, the inquiry heard testimony indicating KCWS’s staff turnover was high and its filing system a mess. When a new director was hired in 2011, he arrived to find banker’s boxes filled with paperwork lining the hallway. Each unit kept files in separate rooms, which left clerks to pull documents from three separate locations to assemble all the information on a single case. KCWS was also skipping mandated security and health checks on foster parents.

“File materials were often ‘mis-filed’ and the entire process was significantly backlogged,” the report read.

First Nations children are significantly overrepresented in Alberta’s child welfare system. Minister of Human Services Dave Hancock confirmed that 68% of all children in the province’s care are First Nations — however, not all of them are managed by First Nations-affiliated agencies.

“It’s an interesting process with respect to First Nations. We [the provincial government] are accountable, essentially, for children in protection and that gets delegated to First Nations authority. But the funding is from the federal side, so the accountability is to us, but the funding is from the federal government,” the minister said.

Since the death of Baby K., progress has been made, Mr. Hancock added. A new director and a new board are in place at KCWS, he said.

“We have a number of people working with them directly as role models and mentors. We’ve been working with those boards and we have a very good relationship and we’re doing a lot of work with them on processes and procedures,” he said.

Koren Lightning-Earle who sits on the board of directors at KCWS said all of the recommendations issued by Judge Rosborough had been accepted.