By Shari Narine
Sweetgrass Contributing Editor
“We have been failing children in our care for decades. Serenity is not the first case,” said Alberta’s Human Services Minister Irfan Sabir. “At this point, priority for me is to take immediate steps to avoid similar incidents from happening in the future.”
Serenity was the focus of the most recent investigative report by the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate.
The four-year-old First Nations girl died from a traumatic head injury in September 2014 after being placed in kinship care. Her death sparked outrage because of what wasn’t included in the report, that she had been suffering from serious hypothermia, catastrophic malnutrition, and anal and genital bruising, and then the subsequent knowledge that the RCMP were not active in the case, despite what the NDP government had claimed.
The RCMP had not been investigating because it “did not have the full file,” said Sabir.
Providing the RCMP with the necessary information was the responsibility of the delegated First Nations agency that was handling Serenity’s case on the unidentified reserve.
Sabir, who addressed the situation in a press conference Thursday, Dec. 8, said the RCMP now have the necessary documentation, which they received Dec. 6, 2016, and will be conducting its investigation. He said his department will cooperate in every way.
Sabir took full responsibility, but refused to tender his resignation, which the Wildrose Opposition had demanded. He also refused to blame any particular employee or individual agency.
Instead, Sabir announced the formation of an all-party ministerial panel that would focus on making recommendations for changes to strengthen the child intervention system.
The first recommendations will come in six to eight weeks and will focus on improving the child death review process, as well as guide legislation that will be undertaken in the spring session.
Over six to eight months, the panel will explore root causes and factors that contribute to family involvement in the child intervention system, and will examine current funding, resources, training, and supports for families in community. It will also examine the over-representation of Indigenous youth in care.
Sabir acknowledged the work of the Progressive Conservatives to push for an all-party committee. He also acknowledged the Wildrose Party, who offered terms of reference, much of which he said has been included in what the government has set out.
Sabir directed each caucus to nominate a member to sit on the panel. Outside experts will also serve on the panel. Panel members would be announced shortly, he said.
While the committee’s deliberations will be done behind closed doors, it will be meeting with key stakeholders, said Sabir, and its final report will be made public.
“It is clear to me that we have not done enough and we have not acted fast enough. The challenges facing the child intervention system, and particularly care for Indigenous children, can no longer be ignored as they too often are. For far too long we have failed children like Serenity,” said Sabir.
“I am committed to taking action. I am committed to fixing this problem,” he said.