Child, Youth and Family Services Minister Sandy Collins says he, too, was alarmed at the number of children who have died while in the care of his department since 2009 and which the provincial child and youth advocate was unaware of.
The minister was in Corner Brook participating in provincial cabinet meetings Thursday when he gave his first public response to the issue brought forth earlier this week in a report by the CBC.
According to documents obtained by the CBC, 26 children have died in Newfoundland and Labrador while receiving some form of protection from the provincial government since the department, now run by Collins, was established in 2009. A dozen of those deaths were deemed accidental, while eight were considered to be the result of a medical condition and six were suicides.
Carol Chafe, the province’s advocate for children and youth, has said she knew of only six of these deaths. She has called for better legislation to allow her office to be informed of the death of any child under protection by the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services.
Collins said there is a process in place that involves the chief medical examiner and any relevant law enforcement agencies if there is a death involving untoward actions or suspicious circumstances.
Still, that doesn’t mean disclosure is automatically given to Chafe.
The minister, who has been in the portfolio for three weeks, said Chafe can ask for full disclosure with regard to any child’s death. He has directed his staff to contact Chafe to set up a meeting to discuss her concerns and to identify the gaps in legislation.
This past spring, the province appointed an eight-member Child Death Review Committee. It was struck as a result of the inquiry into the death of Zachary Turner, who was killed by his mother, Shirley Turner, in 2003 while she fought extradition to the United States for the alleged murder of Zachary’s father, Andrew Bagby.
That committee will begin hearing referrals in September and will also meet with the advocate.
Collins said he hopes this will help address some of Chafe’s concerns.
“But I want to go a little bit further than that,” said Collins. “I want to meet with her myself. I want to make sure we are all on the same page.”
The minister said he has “a great deal of confidence" that the children are in good hands. Collins said there are nearly 6,000 children currently under the department's protection.
He acknowledged his new department is still being developed and there is always room for improvement.
“We don’t take this lightly,” he said. “One child is too many. Twenty-six? Obviously, there is definitely concern.”
Collins emphasized he doesn’t think the system failed all these children and that, in each case, their families have been informed of what happened with them.
The issue, he said, is the protocols involved and how and when the advocate for children and youth is notified of such deaths.
Any proposed changes in the legislation, he added, would have to be a topic of discussion for the cabinet table.
The Western Star