This investigation started in 2009 with reporter Karen Kleiss’s simple question: How many children have died in provincial care?
It was a question that for decades, the Alberta government had refused to answer. Government reports didn’t match up with newspaper archives, and the medical examiner’s office refused to provide any numbers. It became apparent to the Edmonton Journal legislature reporter that the only way Albertans could find out was through a direct examination of the records.
In November 2009, the Journal submitted an access to information request for all records related to special case reviews conducted by the province into deaths in care, dating back to Jan. 1, 1999.
After a long negotiation process, the province released heavily censored copies of the death records. Most of the information was blacked out, including the child’s age, gender and ethnicity, the name of the agency and workers responsible for the child, and where the child died. In some cases, even the recommendations were deleted.
The Journal appealed. We argued that Alberta’s secretive death investigation process prevents the public from scrutinizing government work in a crucial area, and undermines the public’s ability to hold the child welfare system accountable.
The province argued that the children and their families have a right to privacy, and that oversight protocols such as fatality inquiries provided sufficient information for public scrutiny.
The four-year legal battled ended in victory for Kleiss and the Journal in June 2013, when Alberta’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled the need for public scrutiny outweighed some privacy protections. The adjudicator ordered the release of all of the basic information sought.
In September 2013, the province released 3,000 pages of death records, one for every Alberta child who had died in foster care between 1999 and 2013.
Journal reporter Karen Kleiss painstakingly built a comprehensive and searchable database that allowed the newspaper to document – for the first time – these children.
Calgary Herald reporter Darcy Henton joined the project, and he and Kleiss combed through that database, extracting key details, cross-referencing the death records with lawsuits, news stories and trial records, as well as fatality inquiry reports, which were also released after a fight with government.
Their six-month investigation – published in a six-part series from Nov. 25 to Nov. 30 – revealed trends the government had never identified before, such as the fact that the vast majority of these children were aboriginal; that one in three were infants, and that one-third of them were dying in their beds as a result of unsafe sleeping conditions.
Kleiss and Henton interviewed more than 100 experts, and managed to track down many of the personal stories behind those still-somewhat redacted government records.
Kleiss also unravelled the province’s convoluted death-review system, sifting through legislation and reports and interviewing more than a dozen experts, including the leaders of each of the six bodies involved. Her research revealed a byzantine system accountable to no one, which fails to identify or investigate trends. It doesn’t even follow through on its own recommendations to prevent similar deaths.
Henton scrutinized Alberta’s draconian publication ban, which prevents parents from speaking publicly about their child’s death and bars media from publishing names and photos of children who die, throwing a shroud of secrecy over the entire death review system.
The biggest surprise was our discovery that over the last 14 years, 145 children have died while in the care of the province — nearly triple the 56 deaths reported to the public or to our elected officials. At least one of those ‘hidden’ children was murdered.
One week after the series ran, the province’s Human Services Minister was shuffled out of the portfolio.
The new Human Services minister promised to lift the veil of secrecy on the system. Within a month, a round-table of experts, including former foster children, was convened and broadcast across Alberta for two days. Their recommendations are still working their way through the system.
Within three months, the government passed legislation overturning its publication ban.
Most importantly, the series challenged and forever changed Alberta’s policy on death records, opening up by law the system to public scrutiny. Since that ruling, Kleiss has received thousands more records.
This story began with an extraordinary and unprecedented legal battle in Alberta. The investigation that ensued never lost sight of who we were fighting for: Society’s most vulnerable and voiceless.
Children do not vote. And Alberta’s foster children are invisible — nameless and faceless by law, even after death. Until this series was published, they had not even been counted.