An all-party panel tasked with finding ways to improve Alberta's child-intervention system has drafted its first set of recommendations.
The Ministerial Panel on Child Intervention agreed to 11 preliminary recommendations, addressing eight aspects of the child-in-care death review process, at a meeting on Thursday.
Members voted unanimously on the recommendations which include increasing accountability and transparency, having timelier and more culturally-competent review processes, and treating families in the system with more compassion.
Debate around a 12th recommendation about balancing public transparency and privacy was postponed until the panel's next meeting.
"I think that we've crafted a good set of recommendations that the minister can then take forward and hopefully make some really powerful changes," said Debbie Jabbour, the panel's chair and an NDP MLA for Peace River.
Alberta's government established the task force in December 2016 after information emerged about a four-year-old girl who died in kinship care.
Serenity was admitted to a central Alberta hospital in 2014 with a suspected head injury. Her body was a patchwork of bruises, including genital trauma that suggested the girl had been sexually assaulted.
Her death prompted questions and an emergency debate in Alberta's legislature about the province's child welfare system.
"We've really learned from the past," Jabbour said.
"I think we're going to take all of those lessons and we're going to move forward in a more effective and efficient way."
Eleven MLAs and three social work experts sit on the panel, which has been meeting since February.
Initially, opposition parties had threatened to boycott the review unless its terms of reference changed. At the time, Progressive Conservative MLA Ric McIver — the then-interim leader of his party — called the panel a "sham vehicle for a government bent on whitewashing."
While in power, Alberta's PC party oversaw six similar reviews in as many years, from 2008 to 2014.
On Thursday, McIver said he now feels "cautiously optimistic" about the group's progress.
"Our government didn't get it right — I know we tried, but we didn't get it right," McIver said.
"The NDP hasn't got it right — I know they've tried, and they haven't got it right," he continued.
"We need to set some of the blame-laying aside, we need to work together as a team, which we're trying to do, to make it better.
"Alberta children deserve no less and, boy, we'll have done something if we can make the children-in-care system work better for Albertans than it is right now."
Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon said he still has reservations about the panel, especially around what he described as a lack of attention to past child-in-care cases such as Serenity's.
"It's clear, I think, that we all agree that the system needs to be changed so we'll continue moving forward that way," Nixon said.
The cultural lens
There are 10,000 children receiving intervention services from the Alberta government, according to Children's Services Minister Danielle Larivee.
Between April 1, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2016, 73 people younger than 25 died while receiving government services. More than half were Indigenous.
Alberta Liberal leader David Swann said First Nations people are disproportionately represented among children who are in care. Conversely, he said First Nations are underrepresented by the Children's Services staff who work with those families.
Swann raised his concerns at Thursday's meeting via Skype from Calgary. He also advocated for band delegates to be more involved with the child-in-care death review process, when applicable.
"If you don't have staff that come from that community, I think it's somewhat disingenuous for us to say that we're going to have a First Nations cultural lens," Swann said after the meeting.
"How do we get more First Nations people trained and into the child services programs so they can be more appropriately helpful?"
With Thursday's draft of recommendations put to paper, the panel concluded the first phase of its six-month project.
But deferring one recommendation until future meetings concerned Patti LaBoucane-Benson, one of the panel's three expert advisers. She holds a PhD in Human Ecology with a focus on First Nations families.
"We need to have strong, firm recommendations and it's within our mandate and it's important," LaBoucane-Benson urged the MLAs.
"Once we disband, it's done. Nobody is going to come back to this in a way that we will. I would strongly urge this panel to take it upon ourselves to consult widely in the time that we have and come up with a recommendation."
Phase two of the project is expected to take four months, wrapping up with a second set of recommendations on Aug. 1.
Panel members will discuss recommendations from past reviews, as well as funding, family supports, and the factors that contribute to children being in government care.