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Citizen Editorial on Elman Report

March 6, 2009 permalink

The Orangeville Citizen has printed an editorial on the report by child advocate Irwin Elman.



Orangeville Citizen, Editorial March 5, 2009

How many of the 90 child deaths led to inquests?

THERE WAS A TIME in Ontario when coroner's inquests were almost routine, particularly if there was a high-profile homicide.

A case in point was the situation 100 years ago, when a Melancthon man with a history of mental problems strode to a neighbours' house and shot two of the residents to death. An inquest was immediately called, at which three medical experts gave convincing testimony as to the killer's insanity, and within weeks the man was sent to an asylum in Hamilton.

Back then, inquests were often held to assist police in gathering evidence concerning a possible crime. However, this process came under fire in the mid-20th Century when some police forces were accused of using inquests, with their relaxed rules on evidence, as "fishing expeditions."

Today, the Ontario Coroner's Act not only states that the coroner's powers "shall not be construed as creating a criminal court of record," but goes on to stipulate that the five-member juries "shall not make any finding of legal responsibility or express any conclusion of law on any matter" relevant to the inquest.

What the juries must do is inquire into the circumstances of the death, including by what means the deceased died and, more importantly, "may make recommendations directed to the avoidance of death in similar circumstances or respecting any other matter arising out of the inquest."

Last week, Ontario's Child Advocate released a report chillingly titled: "90 deaths, ninety voices silenced."

The 90 were children known to Ontario's child welfare system who died in 2007, according to the latest report from the chief coroner's office — a number Child's Advocate Irwin Elman says is shocking and should trouble us all.

Equally disturbing, he said in his first annual report to the Legislature, is the government's refusal, on privacy grounds, to share detailed information on these deaths with his office.

"These are obviously very critical documents for the understanding of the events leading to the death of the child or youth, and entirely necessary for the work of the Advocacy Office," he wrote, adding: "The matter of access to information is one that we will pursue vigorously."

In an interview, he told the Toronto Star he had "no idea" so many of the children, who were either open cases of Children's Aid Societies (CAS) or had died within a year of their files being closed, could perish in a single year in Ontario. Nor did he know that the number of children who have died has been constant since the late 1990s when the Coroner's office began tracking their deaths.

Although acknowledging that the deaths represent less than a quarter of all children who died in the province in 2007 and are a fraction of the 26,260 open CAS cases, he said the number of deaths was "too high by any standard."

We heartily agree.

Mr. Elman said key goals for his office are gaining more access to information on children and youth involved in the child welfare and youth criminal justice systems, and broadening his office's legal right to the coroner's files on deaths.

He said such information would help his office "to resolve issues that youth have contacted us about, to know how to respond to incidents involving children and youth in care and to investigate any deaths among our charges."

The 90 deaths in 2007 are recorded as part of the chief coroner's annual Pediatric Death Review Committee report, released last June. They include children and youths in foster care, whose families had open files with a children's aid society or had died within a year of their files being closed.

Interestingly, the committee concluded that most of the deaths were preventable. It found only 16 were accidental. Nine were listed as suicides; four were homicides; eight died from natural causes and could probably not have been prevented; 22 were "undetermined," while 17 were yet to be assigned a classification; and 14 were not investigated since deaths were expected due to fragile health.

Questioned in the Legislature, Deborah Matthews, Minister of Children and Youth Services, assured NDP Leader Howard Hampton that her ministry takes such deaths "very, very seriously. We work with the Chief Coroner every time there is a death reviewed. We take it very seriously and make sure that we take the steps necessary to prevent future deaths."

Well, one step we see as necessary would be for the law or government policy to ensure that more inquests are held into such deaths and for the coroner's office to disclose publicly the findings of investigations that lead to a conclusion that no inquest is needed.

As we see it, any privacy concerns arising out of such requirements should surely give way to the public interest in preventing preventable deaths.

We certainly wish Mr. Elman well in his efforts and hope the minister will give him the tools he needs to accomplish his important task.

Source: Orangeville Citizen