Law lets children die nameless
In a democratic society, individuals are not supposed
to die anonymously.
The community's ability to know the names of the dead and how a citizen
leaves this world is a fundamental difference between countries such as
Canada and authoritarian states where people can simply disappear.
This is especially important when a person dies in the care of the
state. That's how a community holds responsible public bodies to
account; a fatality inquiry is the crucial vehicle.
But in Alberta, this principle has been compromised in
a troubling way.
The province now prohibits publication of the name of any child who dies
in foster care under the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act.
This week, for instance, a fatality inquiry began into the case of a
17-year-old who was killed when he jumped out of a social worker's car
on the way to the boy's Spruce Grove group home.
The youth, known only as L.S., was made a permanent
ward of the state at birth. As a result, he died nameless and will
remain nameless in the community.
A sound argument can be made for protecting the identity of minors in
care while a child is alive: for instance, to protect a child from
teasing at school.
But when someone dies, that justification is no longer
valid. Indeed, refusing to disclose the name could be harmful. What if
others have helpful information about the person, but it does not not
come to light because the identity was not made public?
Think of the six deaths which occurred in foster care
According to the province, the names of these children cannot be
disclosed. The Youth and Family Enhancement Act prohibits identifying
publicly any child "who has come to the minister's or director's
attention under this act or any information serving to identify the
guardian of the child."
Although it's not clear why, the province interprets
this protection to cover those who have died as well as the living. The
Criminal Code quite rightly protects the identity of victims of sex
assault crimes. The name of the four-year-old girl at the centre of a
current sex abuse trial cannot be published, for instance. In that
trial, a judge this week agreed to lift the publication ban on the name
of the accused, Darcy Don Bannert, the boyfriend of the girl's mother.
Bannert has a different last name from the young
victim and her mother, so there is no danger the girl will be
identified. Yet a provincial government lawyer at the court insisted to
The Journal that Bannert's identity could not be be disclosed under the
provincial act for fear of identifying the child's mother.
The impact of the province's Youth and Family
Enhancement Act is far- reaching. For instance, in a recent murder case,
the province interpreted the law as prohibiting the press from asking
the question about whether the victim had any involvement with
children's services. One media outlet has been prosecuted for doing so.
The intent of the act is to protect young children from the stigma of
being in foster care and to afford some privacy to the good-hearted
foster parents who take care of them.
But in effect, the law compromises the community's
ability to keep these agencies accountable. We can't find out -- as we
did with Richard Cardinal so many years ago -- if a dead child might
have been in a series of foster homes. Surely that's not what was
The Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act is too
blunt an instrument. A community must be able to name the dead, tell
their stories and be able to get a full accounting of how their public
May 11, 2007