Thursday, November 15, 2012

X-ray Alberta foster kids, judge says

Children’s services caseworkers should have easy access to the criminal histories of every potential foster parent, and children should have full-body X-rays before they are placed in care, a judge recommended Wednesday in a fatality inquiry report.

In a nine-page report released nearly five years after a toddler was shaken to death by his foster father, Provincial Court Judge Donna Valgardson found the boy’s caseworker relied exclusively on the foster father to tell her about his criminal history.

The man admitted he had two convictions for assault causing bodily harm, but failed to mention he had initially been charged with attempted murder.

Valgardson found that information might have influenced the caseworker’s decisions about the boy’s care.

“One of the concerns raised was the impact of privacy legislation on the ability of Children and Youth Services to access police investigative files of a prospective foster parent,” Valgardson wrote.

Currently, caseworkers must submit formal access requests for those files, a long and complicated process that allows law enforcement agencies to black out some information contained in them.

“The Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act (should) be amended to allow access to law enforcement files relating to an applicant with a criminal record,” she said.

She also recommended that “consent to the release of medical history be obtained upon apprehension and a skeletal X-ray be obtained as part of the medical examination of a child placed in foster care.”

The 13-month-old boy died on Nov. 26, 2005, two days after paramedics found him lying in the living room at his foster parents’ home. He was not breathing and he had no pulse.

His foster father told police the boy was playing with his older brother when he started shaking, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed.

The autopsy, however, revealed the boy had severe head injuries consistent with shaken infant syndrome.

The foster father was initially charged with second-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2006. He was sentenced to five years in prison, and is now on parole.

Children’s services spokesman Stuart Elson said prospective foster parents who have criminal records are now required to obtain their own files from police and provide them to the department. The criminal history in the file summarizes the offence, lists the initial charges and indicates whether there was a plea bargain.

“So we are not relying on the person to explain what the charge was,” Elson said.

He said the ministry introduced a policy in 2007 that disqualifies any person with a history of violent or sexual offences against children from becoming a foster parent. The policy does not explicitly disqualify those convicted of violent or sexual offences against adults.

NDP children and youth services critic Rachel Notley said a kinship care report released in 2009 did not describe the level of scrutiny Elson said is taking place.

“It acknowledged they were still putting kids in temporary care without the criminal record check being completed,” she said, adding the government will have trouble following the recommendations unless they hire more staff.

“They’re not going to be able to do it with the staff they have — they’ve cut funding in this area since this inquiry was completed.”

She said the X-rays seem like a reasonable idea. “I can certainly see how it would have made a difference in this particular case,” she said.

Dr. Robert Moriartey, president of Alberta Medical Association pediatrics section, said such X-rays would be of no benefit to doctors except in cases of documented previous abuse or if the foster placement put the child in extreme jeopardy.

“To put those children through a fishing expedition X-ray is totally inappropriate,” Moriartey said, adding that ethically, a doctor must have a reason to expose a child to radiation like that created by an X-ray. “We don’t recommend a child have a test unless it is medically necessary.”

Elson declined to comment on Valgardson’s recommendations, saying the ministry is reviewing the report.

Valgardson made 11 recommendations, including better training for foster parents with respect to shaken infant syndrome and making sure foster families are properly supported. She also recommended the department take steps to ensure caseworkers meet regularly with children in foster care, and that all workers involved with kids and foster families are in regular contact with one another.

The report, released nearly two years after the fatality inquiry wrapped up, brought little comfort to the boy’s mother.

“The pain and the loss of my son will always be there,” she said Wednesday. “I live with the pain every day. I see people walk down the street holding their son’s hand, and I wonder, why couldn’t that be me? “The guy only got four-and-a-half years for killing my son and I’ve got a lifetime of pain to live through.”

She said she fears the recommendations will not be implemented because they’re not binding. Even if the law changes to allow caseworkers to access criminal histories, it’s still not mandatory for caseworkers to read them.

“I hope that this will help other children. My son’s death has to come to something. I hope. But who knows.

“We’re always hearing on the news that another child died in care because of the same mistakes. They look into the matters, but they always find some way to cover it up.”

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