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Toddler's death could lead to spike in CFS apprehensions: children's advocate

Manitoba’s deputy children’s advocate is concerned that the death of another child in care — one that has drawn comparisons to the slaying of Phoenix Sinclair — will cause social workers to boost child apprehensions.

“The easy thing to do is just apprehend. At the end of the day, that’s not good for individual children. It’s not good collectively,” said Corey La Berge.

Manitoba, with more than 10,000 kids in care of family services agencies, has one of the highest child apprehension rates in the nation. About 90 per cent of the kids in care are indigenous.

La Berge said the death of 21-month-old Kierra Elektra Star Williams in July 2014 is just the kind of case that “fuel(s) risk aversion” on the part of child welfare agencies. Details surrounding Kierra’s death are just emerging, but the allegation is that she was neglected, starved and beaten to death after being returned by child and family services to her biological parents on Peguis First Nation.

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Kierra Elektra Star Williams</p>

Kierra Elektra Star Williams

Manitoba’s deputy children’s advocate is concerned that the death of another child in care — one that has drawn comparisons to the slaying of Phoenix Sinclair — will cause social workers to boost child apprehensions.

"The easy thing to do is just apprehend. At the end of the day, that’s not good for individual children. It’s not good collectively," said Corey La Berge.

Manitoba, with more than 10,000 kids in care of family services agencies, has one of the highest child apprehension rates in the nation. About 90 per cent of the kids in care are indigenous.

La Berge said the death of 21-month-old Kierra Elektra Star Williams in July 2014 is just the kind of case that "fuel(s) risk aversion" on the part of child welfare agencies. Details surrounding Kierra’s death are just emerging, but the allegation is that she was neglected, starved and beaten to death after being returned by child and family services to her biological parents on Peguis First Nation.

"It’s just tragic," La Berge said of the case, as he confirmed Thursday that the Office of the Children’s Advocate (OCA) had launched an investigation soon after being informed of the tot’s death by the chief medical examiner’s office.

La Berge did not comment directly on the OCA’s probe. But he said such investigations are complicated by the fact that the office is careful not to interfere with a police inquiry.

"We are typically involved in terms of communicating with the investigating officers to make sure we’re not stepping on any toes or anything," he said. "Likewise the Crown’s office."

Police have released little information about Kierra’s death. Her mother, Vanessa Bushie, has been accused of second-degree murder, while her father Daniel Williams and adult sister Jasmine Williams are charged with manslaughter. The charges have not been proven and the three are presumed innocent.

The Free Press is challenging a series of publication bans imposed on bail hearings involving the accused. A preliminary hearing is set for December, and a trial isn’t expected to happen before 2018.

Deputy Children's Advocate Corey La Berge

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Deputy Children's Advocate Corey La Berge Purchase Photo Print

La Berge was careful not to comment on the media challenge, but he said, in general, the public should be provided with more information when investigations are conducted into tragic incidents. OCA reports are not made public. They are provided, by law, only to the minister of family services, the chief medical examiner and the provincial ombudsman.

While the deaths of children in care are thoroughly investigated and recommendations for system improvements are made to prevent repeat occurrences, the public doesn’t see that work, the OCA official said.

"I think the more in the dark the public are in terms of situations like this — the death of this girl — then we’re left with speculation, conjecture, rumours, paranoia, suspicion and a loss of confidence in the administration of child welfare. And I think that doesn’t do anyone any good."

The Selinger government had belatedly introduced legislative amendments that could have opened up the review process more to the public. But the legislative session came to an end before they were passed.

The province is now in a period of governing limbo. Outgoing Family Services Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross lost her seat in the April 19 election and has cleared out her ministerial office. A new family services minister will be appointed on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, La Berge said the OCA could complete its report into how child welfare agencies and others handled Kierra’s case before criminal proceedings are dealt with. Whether that, in fact, happens will depend upon discussions with legal authorities and whether "we feel comfortable completing that report absent some of the information we don’t feel comfortable trying to obtain."

Normally, in the case of a child who dies while in care, the OCA would obtain any records or files kept by CFS agencies involved. It would interview case workers and supervisors and speak with family members. It may also examine the role of those who provided any mental health services or other publicly funded social services to the child.

Under law, the OCA is not allowed to assign blame, but to point out how agencies can improve operations to ensure that a tragic incident is not repeated. La Berge said if in its investigation it discovers a problem that could put a child at risk, it will get in touch with those concerned immediately.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Larry Kusch.

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History

Updated on Thursday, April 28, 2016 at 9:06 PM CDT: Turns off comments.

10:40 PM: Removes incorrect thumbnail.

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