By Shari Narine
“This is important legislation and our ability to be able to work in an effective way for children is what’s most important, and that’s going to take some time,” said Alberta Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff.
On May 30, Children’s Services Minister Danielle Larivee introduced Bill 18, the Child Protection and Accountability Act, which focuses on the child death review process. The bill increases the work load for the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate.
The legislation tasks the OCYA with carrying out reviews of all children who die in government care or who were in care two years previous. Presently, the office reviews every child death and determines if there are systemic issues involved. If so, then the OCYA does a full review. The office also reviews serious injuries of children in care.
But the legislation is missing at least one important component, says Graff, and that is a process by which the government is accountable for implementing recommendations that come from his office.
The new legislation requires government departments that have been singled out by recommendations from the OCYA to respond within 75 days to a newly-formed advisory audit committee. The legislation does not include a public accounts committee structure which would hold the departments accountable for taking action.
“We can’t treat external child review processes as though they’re going to have a large influence over systemic change or a systems change if there isn’t a robust internal review process that takes place; if there isn’t a broad ranging quality improvement process of which child death review is only one part of it,” said Graff.
External reviews, like the OCYA’s child death reviews, are limited, he says. The internal processes bring about the changes that are required.
“It’s that culture of change that will make all the difference, in my view, in improving the way young people experience the child intervention system,” he said.
Also of a concern to Graff, which he says he voiced while the government was drafting the legislation, is the one-year timeframe his office has been given to complete each death review.
“We try to set a timeframe for completion of our reviews and we often fall short of that year timeframe currently and the requirements of the legislation asks that we do more in terms of a review,” he said.
There are many factors that influence how long a review takes, including resources, and, not the least of which, is a family’s grief and the grieving process. Reviews are unique, he said.
“I want for us to be able to shape how we move forward in a way that makes sense and not just as part of a list,” Graff said.
The legislation does allow for the OCYA to report why a review cannot be completed within the time frame.
Graff says he is unclear about the directive that says the OCYA must “consider resource implications, such as training and workload pressure as well as the implementation realities … as they relate to disparities on and off reserve.”
Such consideration, Graff stresses, does not mean he will hold back on recommendations.
“I continue to see myself as an independent office of the legislature and if there are considerations around the recommendations that I make, I would want to make sure those are visible, but it would not ever prevent me from making them,” he said.
The bill compels law enforcement and other agencies to provide the OCYA with information on the deaths of children in care. Graff says the OCYA is already able to compel such information and barriers between the OCYA and other organizations have reduced over the years.
Graff is pleased that the legislation calls for those in the know to provide the information to the OCYA instead of the OCYA having to ask for it.
“Certainly access to information in a timely way is important when it comes to the timeframes for doing reviews,” he said.
The bill highlights a number of areas in which the OCYA is already delivering. Graff says the government was aware of this. Those areas include culturally-relevant participation in investigations that deal with the deaths of Indigenous children; public reporting on child death reviews; and developing comprehensive reviews for systemic changes.
Graff says he didn’t realize the OCYA’s role would be expanded in such a manner until he started being asked specific questions about the processes his office undertook. He says the government kept him informed about the areas the bill would be addressing.
“My preference would always be that we would have active involvement. We do have some experience with child death reviews processes so having that experience be part of the discussion and part of the crafting of legislation, would, I think, be a positive contribution,” said Graff.
He is hopeful in moving forward that the OCYA will be given opportunities to have more “substantial input.”
Larivee said that her department will work with Graff to examine resources and staffing and other details needed to fulfill the requirements of the new legislation.
“We haven’t had those discussions to date but we do know we have to have discussions about resources. Those resources have to be at a level that works for us, works for the government, but more importantly works for the young people,” said Graff. “That’s going to take some engaging discussion and take a little bit of time.”
He doesn’t believe it will take long to identify OCYA’s resource needs. What will take time, says Graff, is identifying how the office gets the resources in a timely manner.
Graff also noted that as the bill is making its way through the legislature, the standing committee for legislative offices is reviewing the Child and Youth Advocate act.
Larivee hopes to have the bill passed by the end of the spring session.