Nearly 100 children have died since 2017 while in Alberta government care, according to a recent Ministry of Children’s Services report. PHOTO:KELLY SIKKEMA ON UNSPLASH

Delonna Sullivan, a four-month-old infant, was placed in foster care in Edmonton on April 6, 2011, for what should have been a temporary circumstance.

But six days later, she was dead.

An autopsy left her mother with no answers.

“There was no reason given for that child to die,” her mother’s lawyer, Larry McConnell, says.

Delonna’s foster parent was initially charged, but an inquiry later found there was no foul play and the infant died due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). SIDS occurs when an infant dies, usually in their sleep; the exact cause cannot fully be explained.

The inquiry found the foster mother’s baby monitor broke before the baby stopped breathing unexpectedly. Paramedics attempted to resuscitate Delonna, but she was pronounced dead in hospital.

Delonna was one of many children who have died while in government care in recent years. Like others, her death was attributed to inadequate technology and suspected underlying health conditions.

The stats

Since 2017, nearly 100 children have died in Alberta government care, according to a recent Alberta Ministry of Children’s Services report. But 40 per cent of the children who died were under the age of five.

Children’s Services Minister Rebecca Schulz declined an interview.

“The number of children who have passed away while in government care has remained consistent with previous years,” the minister’s spokesperson, press secretary Rebecca Polak, said in a statement.

Polak is referencing the child death statistics available on the ministry’s website for the fiscal years of 2017-2019.

In that time, an average of 33 children died annually. Depending on the year, between 13 and 16 of those children were under the age of five.

The number of deaths for those years were above average for the past decade, and in the first six months of the 2020-2021 fiscal year, 24 children had already died.

Fixing the problem

Experts say mandatory training and better technology for foster parents may decrease the number of deaths in this age group. 

Children under five are at higher risk due to their co-dependencies; young children cannot communicate their needs, require constant adult supervision, and have physical as well as social limitations, according to a 2019 Alberta government report on child intervention services.

Foster parents need support to prevent infants from dying in their sleep, said Lenora Marcellus, a registered nurse and associate professor at the University of Victoria.

Underlying health concerns and SIDS are common contributors to the death of children under five. PHOTO:KELLY SIKKEMA ON UNSPLASH

Although the B.C. government has training and regulations for foster parents regarding sleeping arrangements, she said, the guidelines can be hard to follow without proper support and mandatory sleep training.

Polak said in her statement that all Alberta foster parents caring for children under 36 months must take the Safe Babies Caregiving Education Program, which includes safe sleeping practices.

Underlying health conditions 

University of Calgary social work professor Dorothy Badry has spent decades trying to understand the effects the foster care system has on children.

When she was a social worker with the child at risk response team in Alberta, Badry responded to many different house calls. She went on many home visits and sometimes found children in immediate danger.

As a social worker, Badry would draw on her training to get the children out of harm’s way as quickly and calmly as possible.

Many of these children struggle with medical conditions, which can come from drug use before the child was born or trauma.

“[There is] apprehension to go into temporary guardianship, permanent guardianship and then return to family, so the goal of child protection is to assess risk and respond to the situation,” she said.

Badry often experienced this while working with families who received government care.

Dealing with pre-existing medical conditions can be tough for foster parents, especially considering that many children are placed with a foster family within 24 hours due to emergencies, she said.

“You have to take time to investigate and understand the child’s unique needs, their unique challenges and the best way in which to support them.”

dorothy badry, university of calgary social work professor

This creates many complications,  particularly for the foster parents who must acclimatize to each child’s unique background and medical needs quickly, Badry said.

SIDS further complicates caring for children. This is a problem that is hard to solve but social workers and doctors alike agree that ensuring safe sleeping arrangements is crucial, Marcellus said. 

“Unsafe housing and not having the right bedding or sleeping surface can be a risk factor for SIDS,” said the nursing professor. 

Children within the system often come from lower-income families. Marcellus noted some of these children may face early exposure to drugs, alcohol or second-hand smoke, which can cause health issues.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is another issue that is common among families who are receiving government care, she said. This disorder can cause the premature death of a child.

“Early exposure to substances, prenatal exposure to substances and even FASD are also [putting children] at higher risk… alcohol and other substances are risk factors that can contribute to child deaths,” Badry said. 

Changing the system

Rahki Pancholi, the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud, said that she still works to improve government policy to make the care system better for everyone to navigate. 

Pancholi believes decreasing the number of children dying while receiving government care begins at the socio-economic level. She said the government talks about providing additional support to those in need but argues action must be taken to support the lowest-income families.

“We can’t separate those things,” Pancholi said.

When Pancholi’s party was in power, they created a committee to develop a plan to improve intervention services in 2018. She said she would like to see a more frequent review of the child intervention system to ensure the government is providing the best care.

It’s hard to see what progress has been made by the government to reduce the number of children that are dying in care without a system review being completed, Pancholi said. 

In fact, the number of deaths in care has not declined since the review was published in 2018. The review’s website also does not appear to have been updated to mark its progress.

The ministry’s spokesperson did not respond when asked about the reviews of the child intervention system. She said the recommendations put in place under the NDP are “at the forefront” of the United Conservative Party’s decision-making.

Polak said the UCP government would soon “share the results of a kinship pilot project,” started by the former NDP government. The program encourages children to be placed with family to ensure a better connection to culture, rather than with unknown foster parents.

Knowing a child’s history is essential to finding them the proper placement, Badry said. 

“You have to take time to investigate and understand the child’s unique needs, their unique challenges and the best way in which to support them,” she said.