The guardians of a four-year-old who died in 2014 of a head wound sustained while in their care testified Thursday that they feel wrongfully blamed for the child's death.
Serenity died Sept. 27, 2014, several days after being admitted to hospital with a head injury after she reportedly fell from a tire swing at her great aunt and uncle's home. There, she and her two older siblings lived under a kinship care arrangement — an alternative to foster care that places children with family members.
A public fatality inquiry into Serenity's death opened Thursday, and the great aunt and uncle were the first two witnesses called to testify.
"I feel like I'm a victim here for something that was accidental," the great aunt said.
Neither the great aunt nor her husband have been able to find work since the child's death, and they've faced abuse and were ostracized from their community, she said.
How Serenity was injured couldn't be determined through an autopsy, but medical experts said a fall from a swing could explain the injury. The child's malnourished and bruised body at the time of her death, however, prompted further investigation by RCMP.
Years later, in October 2017, a single charge of failing to provide the necessities of life to Serenity from May 3, 2013, to Sept. 18, 2014, was laid against the guardians.
In August 2019, following a lengthy preliminary hearing, Crown prosecutors stayed the charge, saying there was no longer a reasonable likelihood of conviction after reviewing the evidence.
That charge expired in August 2020 and Alberta's prosecution service confirmed it had no plans to reactivate the case.
The public fatality inquiry, a legal proceeding in front of a provincial court judge, cannot assign blame but is meant to clarify the circumstances surrounding the death. The presiding judge can then make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.
On Thursday, while questioned about Serenity's low weight by inquiry counsel Mona Duckett, the great aunt said she was always small despite eating a lot.
She acknowledged that even after Serenity was seen by a pediatrician, the child was still unable to gain weight.
"What did you do about that?" Duckett asked.
"Nothing," the great aunt replied.
Shown a photograph taken of Serenity when she was on life support in hospital, the great aunt said she hadn't seen the marks on the child's body before and that she wasn't surprised by her size.
Serenity's great aunt and uncle testified that the girl was not abused in their home and that they weren't aware of any injuries she'd sustained.
They also claimed social workers didn't disclose issues the children had before they were placed with them, and that they felt pressured into taking the children and didn't understand the legal implications of becoming guardians.
"The welfare worker rushed everything," the great aunt said, while under questioning from her own lawyer, Robert Lee.
The great aunt wouldn't have taken the children had she known that they were "high needs," she added.
When pressed by counsel for Children's Services about what the high needs were, she said the young siblings didn't sleep well, often fought and sometimes threw tantrums.
Mother to testify next week
The inquiry is scheduled to run until Sept. 21, with 16 witnesses total expected to testify. They include multiple social workers, a police officer, the medical examiner and Serenity's mother.
The child's mother will testify next week.
When details about Serenity's case became public, they prompted a firestorm of media and public criticism that led to changes to Alberta's child welfare policies.