Publication ban prohibits naming deceased children, shields Alberta government from scrutiny.
Alberta’s ban on publicizing the names and photos of children who die in provincial care is one of the most restrictive in the country, robbing grieving families of their ability to raise concerns in public about the deaths and sheltering government officials from scrutiny.
About 10 children die in care in Alberta every year, but because of a law that prevents their names and photographs — and those of parents or guardians — from being publicized, the public is denied the right to know who they are and assess whether their deaths could have been prevented.
Basic information about the 145 children who died in care in Alberta between 1999 and 2013 was only released to the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald after a four-year legal battle. Still, we can only tell you the names of two of the 145. That’s because their parents applied in court to have the publication ban lifted — a step all parents must take if they wish to speak out about the deaths of their children.
Velvet Martin, who went through the court process, said the ban is evil and “the nemesis of justice.”
“They have failed the child in the utmost way possible and now they are stealing their identity — the only thing they have left,” said Martin, whose daughter Samantha died after being in care. “It’s bad enough to lose a child, but to have it covered up is just wrong and I won’t stand for it.”
With scant information on child death cases, Albertans are left to trust that the government will investigate and correct any systemic problems, yet often the same people responsible for supervising a case lead the review.
The result of the legislation is a blanket of confidentiality over the child welfare system.
Child welfare agencies won’t talk to the media. Several didn’t respond to repeated requests for information about how they protect children and one, citing the province’s privacy act, referred calls to the Ministry of Human Services.
People who work inside the system are barred from speaking publicly about their experiences; even those who spoke on condition of anonymity were afraid they’d lose their jobs.
Government officials argue the ban is necessary to protect the privacy of children and their families; in some cases, a child who dies might have siblings who are also in government care. Children in care are some of the province’s most vulnerable citizens, and provincial authorities feel strongly about trying to protect them.
“I think there is always a balance of values that you have to take into account,” said Human Services Minister Dave Hancock. “One of the values obviously is an open and transparent process so that people can know and understand what is happening and know that things are being handled in an appropriate fashion. The other value is you don’t want to intrude in the personal lives of families any more than necessary, particularly in circumstances like that where they have already suffered significant tragedy.”
In a press conference on Wednesday, in response to the Journal-Herald investigation, Hancock said that the issue of where that line should be drawn will be discussed at a roundtable of MLAs and experts scheduled for January. Hancock announced the roundtable on Tuesday.
The Alberta College of Social Workers supports the principle of the ban for the benefit of the family and any siblings.
“It could cause some definite hardship for the family,” said spokeswoman Lori Sigurdson. “They could be ostracized in the community. It could be a shame thing. Their relationship with the ministry and the worker who is working with them could become antagonistic or more difficult because they feel they have betrayed them.”
Hancock said the bodies that review deaths — including the child and youth advocate, the quality assurance council and the fatality inquiry review board — provide the public with appropriate access to information. He said it’s “not necessarily useful to publish a name and face just for the prurient interest of the opposition or others.”
However, in an interview this month, Hancock admitted he didn’t realize the law went so far as to prohibit parents from talking about their children and releasing their names to the media, and said he would look into it.
“I think families for the most part need to be able to heal and need to have the discussions that they need to heal,” he said.
That’s the argument made by the family of a 21-month-old aboriginal baby who died in a foster home in 2010.
“It is ridiculous. We want to tell our story and we can’t,” the girl’s aunt said. “We’re suffering in silence here.”
A Morinville foster mother has been charged with second-degree murder, but the case has not yet gone to trial. It could be years before the facts of the case and what went wrong are revealed — if ever.
Choking back tears, the aunt said problems with the system must be scrutinized if similar deaths are to be avoided. “Every couple of years, another child is dying in care, and it is usually a native kid,” she said.
Martin, the mother who had the ban lifted on her daughter’s name, said almost every family she has met wants to speak out, but they often don’t know their rights and can’t afford to seek legal advice.
“A lot of people don’t have the fortitude, they don’t have the education, the ability, to come forward,” said Martin, a spokeswoman for a national advocacy group called Protecting Canadian Children.
In her case, she was able to lobby for a fatality inquiry. During that process, she found out that while Samantha’s caseworker had assured her that the girl — who had a number of medical conditions — was getting exceptional care, the caseworker hadn’t seen her for 14 months, nor had she been examined by a doctor in three years.
“I was naive and under the impression that children’s services was doing an internal investigation and were actually going to do something other than cover their ass,” she said. “It was a hard lesson for me.”
Like Martin, Jamie Sullivan went to court to lift the ban on her daughter Delonna’s name — but she’s angry she had to. “If you want to arrest me for talking about my daughter, then arrest me,” she said. “You can’t take anything more from me than you have already. … And I’m not going to have somebody telling me I can’t show her picture. That’s just not right.”
The publication ban law is part of Alberta’s Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act. It stipulates that “no person shall publish the name or a photograph of a child or of the child’s parent or guardian in a manner that reveals that the child is receiving or has received intervention services.” The penalty is a maximum $10,000 fine or up to six months in jail.
Prior to legislative changes in 2004, the ban didn’t exist. A 13-member task force, chaired by Calgary MLA Harvey Cenaiko and made up entirely of Conservative MLAs and child welfare officials, had recommended the change to government. Cenaiko told MLAs the new provisions were drafted to align with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. No mention was made that the ban remained in place after a child died.
Provincial privacy commissioner Jill Clayton, who wasn’t in office when the law was amended, said she can’t find any record of the government consulting the office for advice or guidance on the issue.
Across Canada, most provinces ban the publication of names of children who are in care or receiving services from the government, but lift the ban or decline to enforce it when one of those children die. Only Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec have bans similar to Alberta’s, and officials say Quebec currently does not enforce the ban when a child dies.
But in Alberta, despite the minister’s promise to review the ban, the government continues to enforce it.
This month, Alberta’s children services director refused a request from the Journal and Herald to lift the ban on the name of a Samson Cree baby, opposing an application that was supported with affidavits from both the child’s parents.
Being able to publish the names, photographs and personal stories of children who die in care are large factors in bringing about change, experts say. If parents are muzzled, there is no one else to speak for the children, said Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Institute in the U.S.
“These children have no lobby,” said Fellmouth, a professor of public interest law at the University of San Diego. “They have no campaign contributions. They don’t vote. Their sole asset is democracy, and public sympathy and concern, and disclosure. That’s the sole political card they have.”
Many laws to protect children are named after child victims, he noted. The Amber Alert system was named for Amber Hagerman, a nine-year-old abducted and murdered in Arlington, Texas, in 1996, while Chelsea’s Law in California, which increases penalties and monitoring of sexual offenders, was named after 17-year-old rape-murder victim Chelsea King.
In Canada, there’s the Jordan Principle that stipulates that care be provided for children when they need it and decisions about who is responsible for paying for it be made later. It is named after a five-year-old Manitoba Cree child named Jordan River Anderson, who died in hospital while federal and provincial authorities bickered over who was responsible for his home care.
And in other provinces, the deaths of children in care make headlines. In Manitoba, a public inquiry has put the 2005 death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair under the microscope; in Saskatchewan, RCMP are investigating the alleged 2013 murder of six-year-old Lee Bonneau by another child under the age of 12; and in Ontario, an inquiry has been probing the case of five-year-old Jeffrey Baldwin, who died in 2002 after years of mistreatment.
By comparison, in Alberta, when the child and youth advocate writes reports about flaws in the system, he has to make up names for the children. In July, he released “Remembering Brian,” and just last week he issued “Kamil: An Immigrant Youth’s Struggle.” Both are pseudonyms.
Even when a death of a child in care is examined at a fatality inquiry in Alberta, the children and parents are identified only by initials. Provincial court Judge Leonard Mandamin balked at this practice in an August 2007 fatality inquiry report into the suicide of a 16-year-old Tsuu T’ina boy. “The use of initials dehumanizes the tragic death of this young person,” he wrote.
University of Manitoba professor Arthur Schafer, director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, wonders who the publication law is designed to protect.
“My overarching concern is that privacy is being used as a smokescreen to conceal potential wrongdoing and to prevent the public from getting an accurate picture of problems that may turn out to be systemic,” he said. “Privacy considerations are important, but they aren’t absolute.”
Publication bans by province
British Columbia: The name and photo of a child who dies in care can be published provided information comes from family or other sources.
Alberta: It is illegal to publish names or photos of children who die in care without a court order lifting the ban.
Saskatchewan: The name and photo of a child who dies in care can be published provided information comes from family.
Manitoba: The name and photo of a child who dies in care can be published provided information comes from family.
Ontario: The name and photo of a child who dies in care can be published without restriction.
Quebec: It is illegal to publish the name and photo of a child who dies in care, but the law is not enforced.
New Brunswick: It is illegal to publish the name of a child who dies in care.
Nova Scotia: It is illegal to publish the name of a child who dies in care.
Prince Edward Island: The name and photo of a child who dies in care can be published.
Newfoundland and Labrador: The name and photo of a child who dies in care can be published if information comes from family or other sources.
BY DARCY HENTON AND KAREN KLEISS, CALGARY HERALD AND EDMONTON JOURNAL
Story can be found online here: http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Restrictive+silences+grieving+parents/9221675/story.html