On April 11, 2011, four-month-old Delonna Sullivan died in a south Edmonton home while in foster care.
The loss devastated her family, and led her grandmother, Marilyn Koren, on a quest to uncover the details which surrounded the tragedy.
Now, over a year later, Koren and Delonna’s mother, Jamie Sullivan, are touring Alberta to spread their story, as part of the Protecting Canadian Children Alberta Branch Tour. The mother-and-daughter duo were in TaberWednesday at 10 a.m. to share details of their ordeal.
“It’s the most horrendous story you have ever heard of,” said Koren.
According to Koren, the death of her granddaughter was entirely preventable, and has exposed flaws in the province’s child welfare system.
She explained Delonna was taken from her home, a farm house near Warburg, on April 5, as a social worker from Leduc’s Alberta Family and Child Services offices attended the residence to remove two children from the home, children who belonged to Sullivan’s roommate.
Koren said her daughter’s child was taken as well, but contended there had never been a complaint registered against her daughter.
In sworn statements, the workers who visited the Sullivan home had concerns she was an alcoholic, was mentally unstable and viewed the home as being a health hazard. The family has denied those claims, and Koren added she pleaded with the social workers to have Delonna released to her care, rather than a foster home, but was denied.
Instead, the four-month-old baby was placed in a foster home, and only a few days later, on April 11, Delonna was dead.
“We visited her once and she was sick,” said Koren, who noticed on April 8 her granddaughter suffered from diarrhea, a severe diaper rash and had red marks on the top of her head and inside her ears.
Three days later, Delonna was rushed to hospital. Originally, Koren and Sullivan were told Delonna died in hospital at 4 p.m., after her foster caregiver checked on her at 2 p.m. and tried to revive her through CPR. But according to a medical file obtained later from the hospital, Koren discovered her granddaughter likely died around noon, as the file indicated Delonna was placed in a car seat at 10:30 a.m., and was not checked on until 3:30 p.m.
“She had a cardiac arrest at noon,” said Koren. “She laid dead in that car seat for three-and-a-half hours.”
Autopsy results obtained by the family revealed the medical examiner ruled the death unexplained. Sudden infact death syndrome was ruled out, according to Koren, who added the family was told a test for dehydration was not possible, as a blood sample would have been needed from Delonna while she was alive.
“We thought she was in the hospital alive for two hours and 15 minutes,” said Koren, who added it all didn’t add up when she questioned whty the hospital didn’t take a blood sample. “It prompted us to get the medical file, which told us she had been dead for three-and-a-half hours before she was discovered.”
Koren added the file also revealed there were four different drugs in her granddaughters system, drugs which she said should not have been administered to any child under two years old.
The entire ordeal has left Koren’s confidence in the system shaken, and she has decided now is the time to spread the word. Koren and Sullivan will be joined on a southern Alberta tour by St. Albert’s
Velvet Martin, whose daughter died in 2005 while also in foster care.
“What we are hoping to do is raise public awareness of what is going on in the system. It is failing so many of our children.”
Medicine Hat was visited Tuesday, while stops in Taber and Coaldale will be made Wednesday, before Thursday’s event here in Lethbridge.
According to Koren, the system needs an overhaul, as she contended more oversight is needed.
“What we would like to see happen is when there is a charge of abuse (by a foster parent), there should be an investigation by an independent outlet.”
She would also like to see the identification bans lifted, bans which prevent the identities of children who die in foster homes form being released.
“As long as they are nameless and faceless, it does not have an impact on people,” said Koren.
Sullivan and Koren have already held numerous protests and public events in Leduc and the Edmonton area, as Koren said now is the time to make more Albertans aware of the situation.
Alberta Human Services communication officer Roxanne Dubé Coelho said she could not comment about Sullivan’s case, due to confidentiality provisions under the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act, but said the department does all it can to ensure children stay with their families.
“I can tell you that taking a child or youth into care is always a last resort,” she said. “It is done when removing a child from
their home is the only way to ensure their safety and well-being.”
She added the caseworker must clearly demonstrate to a judge why supporting the family through an Enhancement Agreement cannot adequately ensure the safety and well-being of the child in the home.
“If a caseworker feels the child is at imminent risk, they can do an emergency apprehension. If we must take a child into care in an emergency situation, we must go to court within 10 days to explain why so the judge can review the decision.”
As for cases when something goes wrong in foster care, Coelho said an internal review is conducted.
“This review could include examining files and talking to staff about the services and supports provided to the child. A review of a serious incident may lead to systemic policy or practice changes. In addition, case-specific actions may be taken to support the immediate safety and well-being of the affected child or other children in the home.”
There are also additional steps which may be taken, she added.
“The Child and Family Services Council for Quality Assurance will review all serious injuries and deaths of children in the care of the province and may call a panel of experts to assist in identifying potential improvements to our system. Every death of a child in care is reported by the ministry to the Medical Examiner, who then notifies the Fatality Review Board.”
Coelho also mentioned fatality inquiries and the calling of fatality inquiries are the responsibility of the Minister of Justice. She
added, the Child and Youth Advocate is also notified whenever there is a serious injury or death involving a child receiving services, and that office may conduct its own investigation if the belief is it will be in the best interest of the public.