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September 21, 2008 permalink
The province of Alberta is conducting a public inquiry into the death of an aboriginal boy known only as BL in November, 2005. But since the names of all parties are suppressed, it is in fact a public cover-up.
Learning from a sad, short life
BL's death in foster care is a symptom of a social crisis for which we pay a steep price
Paula Simons, The Edmonton Journal, Saturday, September 20, 2008
I'll call him BL.
He died in November of 2005, a victim of severe brain-damage caused by "shaken baby syndrome." At the time, he was just 13 months old.
BL wasn't his name, of course. He had a beautiful name, and a beautiful chubby baby face. But under the restrictive terms of the province's Child, Youth, and Family Enhancement Act, I can't tell you his real name, or show you his picture. Nor can I tell you the name of the foster father who was convicted of manslaughter in June 2006, for killing him -- and who is already out on parole.
The province says it imposed these restrictive rules to protect the privacy of children in foster care. How nice to know we're protecting BL's privacy so diligently post-mortem -- a shame we couldn't have put the same energy into protecting him before he died. But let's recognize this. When the province forbids us to print the name or the face of a slain foster child, they make it that much harder for us in the media to get anyone to care. Let me take my best shot anyway, to somehow bring some notice to BL's short, sad life.
This week, three years after BL was killed, two years after his killer was convicted, Alberta Justice finally convened a long-delayed fatality inquiry into the circumstances leading to the little boy's death.
What we've learned so far is less than comforting. BL was apprehended from his birth mother on Sept. 30, 2005. According to inquiry testimony, the baby was seized because of concerns of homelessness, prostitution, substance abuse and violence in his home.
The birth mother's two older children had already been apprehended by Children's Services, and placed in the care of the woman's distant cousin, and that cousin's common-law boyfriend. Those placements seemed to be working out, so Children's Services decided to place the third sibling with the same foster parents.
The foster family struggled with the responsibility of caring for a third young child, who, the inquiry heard, had developmental delays. The family asked for additional help to cope with BL's special needs. They asked for respite care. They talked about giving the child up.
The baby had one social worker; the family, another. At the inquiry this week, it came out that while the two workers spoke on the phone, they worked in two different buildings and didn't share their case notes.
On Nov. 24, 2005, BL was rushed to hospital with severe head injuries and extensive bruising. Two days later, doctors took him off life support. The foster father was originally charged with second-degree murder, but he pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
Would better communication between social workers have saved BL? Was it a mistake to overload this cousin and her boyfriend with so many kids? Would more supports from Children's Services have eased the burden? Did the front-line workers assigned to this case have the time and resources they needed to do their jobs?
Those are just some of the important questions Provincial Court Judge Donna Valgardson, who's hearing the inquiry testimony, will have to consider.
But there are some larger, more vexing questions that I hope the judge will not overlook.
The first has to deal with Children Service's policy of kinship care. Where possible, the department tries to place apprehended children with family members, especially in the case of aboriginal families, were loss of culture is a concern.
But is kinship care always the best model? Forget about sentimentality or political correctness. A grandmother, an aunt, a cousin may not necessarily be the best caregiver for a child at risk.
Some children, especially those with "special needs" might well be better off placed with a trained and experienced "semi-professional" foster parent, instead of some distant blood relative. A doctrinaire concern with race and blood ties shouldn't trump the best interests of the individual child. Just because it's convenient or fashionable to place a child with extended family doesn't necessarily make it the right provincial policy.
There's a much larger question that I'd love to see Judge Valgardson consider, too.
About 60 per cent of children in provincial care in the Edmonton region, are, like BL, aboriginal. That's an extraordinary proportion, given that native people make up only about five per cent of the city's population.
BL's death is only a symptom of a far larger social crisis plaguing our beleaguered aboriginal community -- a crisis of poverty and addiction, racial isolation and family breakdown that spans generations. Until young aboriginal women in this province have real-life access to educational opportunities and reproductive choice, access to jobs and decent housing, access to mental health care and addictions treatment, aboriginal kids will continue to end up as wards of the province. If we let another generation of young aboriginal people fall into lives of despair and addiction, we will all pay a terrible social -- and economic -- cost.
If we can't remember BL by name, is it too much to hope that we can remember his life and his death -- and learn something from it?
Source: The Edmonton Journal