By Shari Narine
A new bill in the Alberta legislature aims to give the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate (OCYA) more responsibility, but at the same time will limit the information available to the public when it comes to learning details about children who die in care.
Bill 18, the Child Protection and Accountability Act, was introduced this afternoon by Children’s Services Minister Danielle Larivee. The act is based on recommendations put forward by an all-party panel struck by Larivee earlier this year. The panel’s first phase involved improving the child death review process. Now it will move on to examining the rest of the child intervention system.
The bill calls for the OCYA to investigate the death of every child under 20 years of age, who is in government care or who received government care in the two years prior to death. At present, the OCYA conducts a systemic review of a child’s death or a child who was seriously injured while in government care or who had received services two years prior if it believes it is in the public’s best interest to do so.
The OCYA’s investigation of child deaths would replace the public fatality inquiry in most cases.
OCYA legislation prohibits the advocate from releasing any identifying information about the child, including community, when and where the death took place, or the child’s name. If a fatality inquiry is held, all that information is disclosed and the inquiry is open to the public.
Larivee said the panel had not made a decision on whether the child who died should be named.
“It was a very complex issue in terms of finding that right balance between protecting vulnerable individuals who could be affected by that disclosure and also being able to share that information. So what came out of it was there’s more conversation that needed to be had. So I’m not completely shutting the door on that conversation possibly in phase two,” said Larivee.
She still believes that the new legislation will mean more transparency as the advocate must report to the public what steps it has taken in investigating and analyzing a death and in putting forward recommendations to prevent those circumstances from occurring again.
The OCYA is required to make a public report every six months and the government departments addressed in the recommendations have 75 days to respond.
The new legislation also sets out a mechanism by which the chief medical examiner and law enforcement would share all relevant information with the OCYA to allow the advocate to conduct timely death investigations. To this point, the advocate had to compel the different bodies to provide that information.
Larivee said the “proactive sharing” of information was a “culture shift…. We’re making it really clear in making a culture shift to say this is actually your inherent responsibility to share this information, to make the system better.”
Larivee said all law enforcement and relevant services will be made aware of this new requirement.
If required information is not shared with the OCYA, the OCYA may undertake court action. Larivee didn’t expect that to be a regular occurrence.
The OCYA cannot share with the police any information it receives while conducting its fatality reviews.
The proposed legislation also has the OCYA concluding investigations within 12 months of the child’s death or reporting delays to a committee of the legislature; and coordinating with the police and Ministry of Justice and Solicitor General to ensure OCYA investigations do not interfere with ongoing legal investigations.
However, law enforcement and the ministry cannot indefinitely delay the OCYA’s investigation as they must provide status reports every six months on their investigations.
As well, the bill calls for “increased cultural competence” requiring the OCYA to ensure culturally-relevant experts are part of each review and to create a roster of Indigenous advisors to help with the reviews and the OCYA’s overall approach.
An advisory audit committee will also be struck and will include experts in the child invention system.
Larivee hopes to pass the bill by the end of the spring session and then to work with OCYA to get the resources and staff in place to undertake the additional duties required by the new legislation before it is proclaimed.
She said she didn’t anticipate any difficulties getting additional funding – although she could offer no dollar figure –from the legislative offices committee which controls the OCYA budget as it is an all-party committee and the recommendations came from an all-party panel.
“Certainly the advocate has been supportive to date of the changes, so I suspect he will be excited to get it up and running,” said Larivee.