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Mandatory reporting of child deaths to Newfoundland advocate is coming

Newfoundland and Labrador Child and Youth Advocate Jacqueline Lake Kavanagh speaks with reporters at Confederation Building after an announcement of proposed legislative amendments.
Newfoundland and Labrador Child and Youth Advocate Jacqueline Lake Kavanagh speaks with reporters at Confederation Building after an announcement of proposed legislative amendments. - Ashley Fitzpatrick

Change in government, cabinet, advocates come before change in legislation

Three and a half years after it was publicly and formally called for by then-child and youth advocate Carol Chafe, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has tabled legislation to make it mandatory to report the death of a child in the government’s care to the advocate’s office.

What has been proposed will amend the Child and Youth Advocate Act, requiring child deaths and cases of “critical injury” to be reported.

It defines critical injury, what departments the changes will apply to, the timelines to report, legal protections for employees reporting and several other details.

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But at a news conference at Confederation Building to introduce the changes proposed, no one could — or would — explain why it has taken so long to make mandatory reporting a reality.

Children, Seniors and Social Development Minister Lisa Dempster offered a speech supporting social workers in their daily, difficult work. She thanked staff for their hard work in developing the proposed amendments, side-by-side with staff from the advocate’s office, but addressed no particular difficulties in the process.

In fact, in taking questions, Dempster said she was not aware of any particular hang-ups in the development of the amendments when it comes to figuring out the language.

Many of the details being put forward will just exchange existing policies for voluntary reporting, including related timelines, for mandatory requirements.

The minister was asked directly why it has taken so long to get it before the House of Assembly.

“I can’t look back. I’ve only been in the portfolio since the 31st of July. I know there has been a tremendous amount of work done. I guess sometimes it takes time to do things right,” she said.

Following the news conference, Child and Youth Advocate Jacqueline Lake Kavanagh was asked for her reaction, now that the amendments were finally being introduced.

“Well, I think that’s part of the reaction, finally, it’s before the House,” she told reporters. “This has been a long time coming and I’m very pleased today that we’re able to see these developments in terms of the advocacy services for children and youth in the province.”

Kavanagh has been advocate since Dec. 16, 2016. She similarly described her office as having worked through the amendment language in co-operation with government staff, and did not see any particular hold-ups.

At one point, she mentioned a jurisdictional review completed this fall, updating previous review work that was underway when she first took office.

Former minister of Child, Youth and Family Services Sherry Gambin-Walsh was asked by The Telegram about a timeline on the changes back in mid-November 2016. After all, they were part of the original mandate letter after the Liberals’ election in 2015.

“We do need time to do due diligence, and we will move forward with the recommendations of the child and youth advocate. We just need some time,” she said. “It’s a very important piece of work, reporting critical incidents — and it’s a very detailed and deep piece of work, so we truly, honestly have to be confident that we have everything covered when we go forward.”

Gambin-Walsh said at the time a definition was developed for critical incidents — versus injuries — and that was something that was not then being reported.

The amendments as put forward Tuesday specify critical injuries, but both the minister and current advocate say the definition and details will mean this legislation, amended, will see the province exceeding the reporting requirements in many other jurisdictions in Canada.

As it stands, “critical injury” is being defined as: an injury that may result in a child’s death or cause long-term impairment of the health of a child, including psychological impairment.

It will apply to children receiving services from the Department of Justice or Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development, including but not limited to children in protective care and children in custody at a youth centre or holding facility.

Mandatory reporting will apply for children and youth currently being served by government, or having received services at some point in the year prior to the injury or death.

By legislation, reporting to the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate is required “as soon as practicable,” with policies existing — outside of the legislation — for reporting initial details within 24 hours and a detailed report within five days.

Progressive Conservative Tracey Perry suggested the legislation isn’t going far enough by not including departments covering child health and education. She said it is “watered down,” while suggesting reporting is not guaranteed for all children at this point as a result.

“Other provinces haven’t done it, but why can’t we be the best? Why can’t we be the leader?” Perry asked reporters.

Both the current minister and current advocate say there are existing internal mechanisms for reporting in other areas, and the amendments as written will assure appropriate response when harm comes to any of the province’s most vulnerable children and youth.

Dempster said the province has 1,013 children and youth in its care.

If the act is approved with the amendments as written, the mandatory reporting will officially kick in 90 days after royal assent.

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