VICTORIA - Little Sherry Charlie shouldn’t have died.
The Port Alberni toddler was battered to death days after being placed in a foster home.
The man who beat her, the father in the home, had a long and violent criminal record. He was on probation for assaulting his spouse.
The children’s ministry knew there was a risk. It had already investigated concerns about the well-being of other children in the home.
But the ministry, and the First Nations agency that arranged the placement, both failed Sherry. And a little girl - 19 months old - died a terrible death.
Bad things happen. And in the difficult world of the ministry of children and families, some things will inevitably go very wrong.
When they do, the public needs quick, complete answers, to help avoid future errors. We are the ones responsible.
It took the government almost three years to release a report on her death. There were reasons for some delays. But taking three years to report on the death of a child is inexcusable.
When the report was finally released, the public got a five-page summary - prepared by the ministry - which left huge unanswered questions. The actual report, still secret, was almost 50 pages long.
The summary confirms that Sherry shouldn’t have died. It reveals that the ministry and Usma Nuu Chah Nulth Community and Human Services made major mistakes.
But while it offers up some facts, it does not provide needed answers.
The Nuu Chah Nulth agency, acting on the authority of the ministry, placed Sherry in the home of her uncle, the man convicted of manslaughter in her death. (The ministry believes - rightly - that placing a child with family is preferable to foster care with non-relatives.)
The agency had not done a criminal record check. It had done only one reference check before Sherry and her few possessions were dropped off at the home.
Why not more diligence? The summary doesn’t provide the needed answers. The agency may have violated ministry policies, the summary says. But it adds that the agency staff thought the policies were just guidelines.There was no training in the new rules. Nobody really knew what it all meant.
Why not? Was the ministry unclear? Were things happening too fast? Was there no money for training? Did the push to find family placements take priority over proper checks? Those questions aren’t answered in the skimpy summary.
When the First Nations agency did try to to get information, the ministry failed.
The agency asked the ministry to check its files to see if there were any issues with the prospective foster family.
There were. The ministry had information about past concerns in the same home. But it didn’t disclose them to the First Nations agency.
The summary says only that the failure was “inadvertent.” But why did it happen? Are ministry files incomplete? Was the worker too overloaded to check? Was training inadequate? No answers.
In the 15 days Sherry was in the home before she died, were there any follow-up visits to see how how was she doing? The ministry summary doesn’t say.
All this matters because we need to know if the problem has been fixed. If frontline workers are prevented from doing their job because budget cuts have left them with too many clients, and too few resources, we need to know. If training is inadequate, or systems don’t work, we need to know that.
Three years after Sherry’s death the only completed review has been done by the ministry - an obvious conflict of interest. The public still doesn’t have answers to basic questions.
The immediate solution is simple - release the full review, edited to protect individuals’ privacy rights.
The real answer is to bring back the Children’s Commission, eliminated by the Liberals, and restore effective independent review of the ministry.
Sherry didn’t have to die this way. At least let’s make her death mean something.
Footnote: The ministry contracted with Nicholas Simons, then employed with a First Nations service provider on the Sunshine Coast, to conduct the still-secret review. Simons is now the newly elected NDP MLA from the area, an indication of how long this has taken - and that the government can expect informed questions when the legislature resumes sitting in September.