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Baby’s death ‘unfortunate’: Cathers

In response to a highly critical report detailing how its failures contributed to the death of a baby girl, the Yukon government has come up with a…

In response to a highly critical report detailing how its failures contributed to the death of a baby girl, the Yukon government has come up with a plan.

It will review that review.

The recently released report, written by Manitoba-based social worker Jan Christianson-Wood, evaluated government shortcomings in dealing with Justina Ellis, a young mother who killed her seven-week-old baby in Dawson City in the summer of 2004.

Ellis, who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and a long history of addictions and abuse, led police to Samara Olson’s body, which she had dumped in a garbage can outside a local restaurant. The infant had died of head injuries.

And it wasn’t the first time Ellis had beaten a child.

Five years earlier, Ellis slapped, punched and shook her two-month-old daughter to the point of death. The beating left the child brain damaged. She’s blind and her body is permanently wracked by convulsions.

This latest review, which was heavily censored, mirrored findings laid out following the beating of Ellis’ first child.

It found the department did not live up to standards set out in the Children’s Act, highlighting failures to communicate and share information, inadequate risk assessment and a lack of policies and procedures on how to deal with the troubled family.

With the report in hand, the government has a simple plan, said Social Services minister Brad Cathers.

“There is some ongoing review of that report taking place,” he said outside the legislature Monday.

Cathers repeated this during Tuesday’s Question Period.

“We’re standing here now, and we are faced with the recommendations resulting from the independent review of this very unfortunate matter,” he said.

“We will be working fully with department officials, and we intend to do our level best to ensure that we do the very best we can to prevent such an unfortunate matter as a child death occurring in the future.”

How long will Yukon children living in high-risk homes have to wait for a tighter system and better policies?

That has a lot, but not everything, to do with the ongoing review of the Children’s Act.

“To connect it all to the Children’s Act would be ill advised,” said Cathers.

However, seven of 18 recommendations “will be considered in revisions to the Children’s Act,” according to department documents.

So, the results of the Olson review will be reviewed under the review of the Children’s Act — a process well over two years old, and bogged down by delays and disagreements between government and some First Nations groups.

“We’re hoping to have it done by fall,” said Cathers.

When asked if he would have the revamped Children’s Act ready for the fall sitting of the house, Cathers said he would try.

“I can commit to our intent to work with our partner in the Children’s Act review, that being the Council of Yukon First Nations and First Nations,” he said.

“In any partnership, it’s dependent on both partners reaching agreement and conclusions.”

What specific changes will the minister make?

That’s not clear, either.

“The department will be acting on the recommendations that fall within the operational area,” he said.

“There are some connections that do come to my level and I will be working with them on those.”

The bulk of responsibility for leadership and change in the Yukon’s child-welfare system is being put on the department rather than politicians — especially in the immediate future.

“The department does have existing policies,” said Cathers.

 “If action needs to be taken to revise (existing policies), nothing prevents that from being done prior to a new Children’s Act being completed.”

Are policies currently being hashed-out in the department?

“As I stated, most of this is within departmental areas,” said Cathers.

“I will be waiting for their advice.”

What changes have been made to date?

More social workers have been hired on, Cathers told the house.

Staff was hired before the review was complete, he said.

However, since March, Dawson City has been without a social worker.

Following Olson’s death, it fired Cam Sinclair, the social worker on the scene.

But it isn’t clear whether Sinclair was simply following department protocols and procedures laid out by his superiors.

The department won’t release the information.

For his part, Sinclair is fighting his firing.

But, contacted in Dawson City, he declined to give an interview.

When asked if any of the new staffers have been assigned to Dawson City, Cathers admitted he didn’t know.

It’s up to the department, he added.

“The breakdown I had did not identify the specific areas.”

Reviews shouldn’t take this long, said NDP party leader Todd Hardy.

“I just find that this government, on just about everything they’ve done in terms of reviews, reforms — whatever you want to call them — none of them seem to get complete,” said Hardy.

“They can’t seem to be able to start a project and finish it.”

Changes should have been made by now, he said.

“If the political will was there, the public could be told when they are going to be in place.”

Since 1999, there have been plenty of recommendations to protect children.

That year, territorial judge Heino Lilles handed down several suggestions to improve the system after Ellis went through a circle sentencing hearing for beating her first child.

Many of Lilles’ recommendations echo Christianson-Wood’s.

“This case is a condemnation of a system which erects numerous barriers of confidentiality, isolating relevant information from professionals who are forced to make critical decisions with incomplete data,” Lilles wrote.

In her 119-page report — of which only 17 pages were released — Christianson-Wood notes the department’s “failure to share sufficient information with local service providers to create a heightened awareness of risk in addition to a corresponding lack of an agreement about what should be reported.”

And, in August 2002, two-year-old Emily Sam was found dead by her drunk mother.

A coroner’s inquest ruled the death “unnatural” and “undetermined,” because there was no clear reason why the little girl stopped breathing.

At the time, an independent review found flaws in risk assessment.

And failing to gauge the risk of leaving Olson in Ellis’ care is also Christianson-Wood’s first critique.

“The quality of risk assessment conducted after the file re-opened was inadequate and did not meet family and children’s services’ requirements for such assessments,” her report reads.

The Sam inquiry happened while the territorial Liberals were last in power.

Porter Creek South MLA Pat Duncan, the former premier, said a two-part report commissioned by her government — focusing on children living in care — arrived at similar conclusions.

The Child Welfare League of Canada, which wrote half the study, made 15 recommendations.

“One (recommendation) that leapt out at me as startlingly similar … is to hire child welfare policy staff,” said Duncan.

Despite the earlier reviews, Christianson-Wood found the department’s procedures for dealing with high-risk children lacking.

“It is recommended that family and children’s services branch develop a policy and/or protocol concerning the internal management of high risk cases,” her review reads.

There is no reason policies shouldn’t have been developed by now, said Duncan.

“Today, (Cathers) didn’t seem to recognize that he has ultimate responsibility for these issues and for policy,” she said.

“Policies are adopted at the top and there’s direction to have a policy from the top. What’s (Cathers) doing?”

Those most in need of child-welfare policies are those who are weakest, said Hardy.

“Children are one of the silent voices,” he said.

Attention often goes to groups with the means to “raise the biggest raucous,” he added, comparing how government has dealt with the Children’s Act review versus the recently passed Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act.

“Under political pressure this government can move very, very fast to create brand new legislation,” he said.

This has not happened for the territory’s vulnerable children.

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