Government will look at making child death reviews 'more transparent'

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Government will look at making child death reviews 'more transparent'

The New Brunswick government says it will look at how it can make the child death review process "more transparent," following a CBC News investigation that found the public knows very little about how at-risk children are dying.

At least 53 children known to child protection officials have died over the past two decades, but most of the details of their deaths remain secret.

On Thursday, the government acknowledged for the first time that the public may want to know more about how these children are dying.

"The commitment is to look at that, to see how we can meet that need that you have raised for the desire to have more information about these deaths," chief coroner Gregory Forestell said during a news conference. 

"While at the same time ensuring the privacy and integrity of the process to make sure we don't release too much information that might be harmful to a family who is obviously grieving the loss of their child."

The government stopped short of promising specific changes to the province's child death review process.

But officials will meet the child and youth advocate, the access to information commissioner and the child death review committee to talk about how much information can be released, said Bill Innes, the director of children and youth services with the Department of Social Development..

"We are prepared to sit down with the stakeholders involved in these cases to determine how we can improve this process," Innes said.

A public desire to know more

The promise marks a shift from the government's tone last week.

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman has said New Brunswick's child death review system is excellent and other provinces are following the province's lead.

"We're doing a lot of great work here and you're bringing up stories that are 13, 20 years ago," Horsman said last week, referring to The Lost Children, a series that included profiles of children who died under government watch.

Horsman did not join department officials at the technical briefing about the committee on Thursday.

Asked when the government changed its opinion and decided the process could be improved, Forestell acknowledged "the public's desire for more information."

"From my perspective, the fact the issue was raised is an opportunity to look at our current practices."

The government tabled a followup report in the legislature on Thursday that details how the Department of Social Development has responded to recommendations made by the child death review committee over the past two decades. 

A second followup report explains what the department has done with recommendations made after two-year-old Juli-Anna St. Peter's 2004 death.

But the recommendations lack context and, in many cases, the public doesn't know why the recommendations are being made.

'A really tight balancing act'

The government has argued that it can't release more details about the deaths because of privacy legislation. 

There's no indication it will change that law, but the government is considering whether it can "provide more information on a public basis," Forestell said.

"It's a really tight balancing act to provide the type of information that ensures the public that we are looking seriously at the circumstances surrounding each and every one of these deaths but at the same time preserving the family's right to grieve privately," he said.

Provinces such as Alberta handle that balance by using pseudonyms to protect children's identities.

Part 1: The Lost Children: The secret life of death by neglect

Jackie Brewer, the 2-year-old who was ignored to death

How New Brunswick's child death review system works

Part 2: The Lost Children: 'A child that dies shouldn't be anonymous'

Haunted by Juli-Anna: An 'agonizingly painful' preventable death

Part 3: The Lost Children: Change on horizon for First Nations child welfare

Mona Sock, a life stolen by abuse

Part 4: The Lost Children: Government weighs privacy over transparency in child deaths

Baby Russell: A few minutes of life, then a knife in the heart

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