It has been more than two years since a 16-year-old Nova Scotia girl in the province’s care died in a Halifax home, and her family still does not know what happened to her.
CTV News is not identifying the victim because she was under the care of the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services when she died. She lived in a youth group home, and died at a private residence in Halifax. But the system that is intended to protect her privacy is making it nearly impossible for her family to get any information.
Her aunt, who CTV News has agreed to call “Rose,” is calling for accountability and answers.
“Who has the rights to this child, so then who’s gonna fight for her?” she said.
Halifax Regional Police said at the time that the girl’s death happened under “unexplained circumstances." Officers on the scene told CTV News the death was a suspected overdose, but that has never been confirmed. Police say they are still actively investigating the case. Recently, as a result of that investigation, a man was charged with drug trafficking. However, police say the arrest is not connected to the girl’s death.
“Where’s the confirmation?” Rose wonders. “Where is the phone call, or the sit-down, or the acknowledgement from the same people who said, ‘You’re not fit to raise her, so we’re going to take her; she’s going to be in our care’? And then she dies in your care.”
The death of a child in the province’s care triggers a Critical Incident Review within the department. CTV News has repeatedly requested a copy of that report.
A spokesperson for the Department of Community Services said it was being finalized in March 2017. A recent freedom of information request to see a draft of the review was denied.
The documents provided to CTV News show that a Critical Incident Review is underway, and a Medical Examiner’s Report was sent to the deputy minister and associate deputy minister on April 25, 2016. Emails obtained through freedom of information suggest a “final draft” was completed on March 14, 2017. Nearly a year later, the report has not been finalized and therefore cannot be released to the public, even through freedom of information.
Citing the Children and Family Services Act, Community Services Minister Kelly Regan insists she is unable to talk about the report or the review, or even acknowledge the girl’s death.
“I can’t say anything that has the effect of confirming whether a child who passed away was in fact in the care of the province,” Regan said in an interview.
“We understand that it’s good to have transparency, we’re working on a process to make that happen.”
Regan says since records began in 2004, there has never been a case where a child in the province’s care died as a result of neglect or abuse. Reviews in those cases would be made public, according to the minister.
Thirteen children have died while in the province’s care since 2004. A spokesperson for the Department of Community Services says some of them died of terminal illnesses, or accidental causes.
Rose says someone has to be held accountable for her niece’s death. She works in a group home in another province, and is left with questions about the teen’s care.
“Was there any counselling offered? Was there any group therapy offered? Was she assigned a therapist?” Rose said.
“Somebody needs to speak out for these kids.”
The registrar and CEO of Nova Scotia’s College of Social Workers agrees.
“We have a void in this province, of a voice who can speak on behalf of the youth and the child. Yet in other provinces we have the Child and Youth Advocate Office,” said Alec Stratford.
Stratford says the College of Social Workers has been calling on government to name an independent child and youth advocate. It is being considered.
“The ombudsman does do a lot of that work already, we’re looking at making it a more formal process,” Regan said.
The Office of the Ombudsman does have a youth division and it sometimes independently investigates cases like this, but it is not investigating this particular case. In an email, a spokesperson says: “From an independent oversight perspective, we have had ongoing dialogue with the Department of Community Services in terms of their Critical Incident Review process.”
With so little information available, Rose is left to wonder what’s being done to ensure other children in the system are not at risk.
“How do we prevent this from happening to another family?"
Rose clearly remembers the day she learned of her niece’s death. She says she called her brother, the girl’s father, after she saw that friends were posting messages to the girl’s Facebook page, saying “rest in peace.”
“I mean, can you imagine? He’s calling and leaving his name, his number, he’s frantic on the phone,” she said. “He’s telling them, listen, I just heard on social media that my daughter’s dead.”
That was on Sunday. The family didn’t receive confirmation of the girl’s death until Tuesday. Rose doesn’t want any other family to go through this.
“She was a beautiful soul, she was lovely, and once she got in that system she got as corrupt as they were,” Rose said. “She didn’t think anyone cared, and was she right?”