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Unit that reviews child deaths in B.C. being overhauled

A member of the B.C. Coroners Service carries a bag with the body of a dead infant which was found in a plastic bag between two houses in East Vancouver March 31, 2009.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Six years after a landmark report recommended a Child Death Review Unit in the B.C. Coroners Service remain in place "with appropriate funding and resources," the unit has been hit by staff turnover and is being overhauled.

The revamp will create a standing review panel consisting of CDRU members as well as representatives from other agencies that have a role in child welfare, including the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The unit "was not operating as effectively or as efficiently as it needed to be operating," chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said on Wednesday.

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The unit, created as part of a previous government overhaul earlier this decade, reviews the deaths of all children 18 and under in the province, and is supposed to use information from those reviews to highlight trends and make recommendations to prevent avoidable child deaths in the future.

But although the unit has issued a number of safety bulletins and reports, including a 2009 review of sudden infant deaths and a 2008 report on youth suicide, it has failed to provide regular annual reports that are most useful to public health officials.

That shortfall is partly a result of a change in methodology. When the unit started, it was dealing with a backlog and reviewed and reported child deaths based on the year the case was received. As the unit evolved, it shifted to reviewing and reporting deaths the year the deaths occurred.

But that plan got bogged down. A 2008 report that was to be the first released under that model has yet to be publicly released, and now the unit is moving to a new approach. Annual reports are to be published but a lag time is expected.

The new approach is designed to avoid delays in reporting on child deaths and spotting trends, Ms. Lapointe said.

"The value in reviewing children's deaths is that it's got to be done quickly. Because if you're looking at a trend in sudden deaths of infants, or suicides or overdoses of teens – it is not helpful to have that information four years down the road," she said. "That information has to happen right now."

The panel will include members from government agencies who are better placed to implement recommendations, she added.

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The Coroners Service has been hit by staff turnover, with 11 employees – including several former members of the CDRU – moving to the Independent Investigations Office, a new civilian-led agency set up to investigate police incidents that result in harm or death.

Ms. Lapointe, who took over the head role last year after her predecessor clashed with government over direction of the agency, says it is regrouping from recent departures.

A new chair for the CDRU is expected to be secured within six weeks, and "we anticipate the new team will undertake its first child death review panel this fall," Justice Minister Shirley Bond said in an e-mail provided by staff.

The BCCS is "still adequately meeting its legislated mandate to conduct death investigations, inquests and reviews. The Coroner has been working hard to fill these vacancies and I am told that just three full-time positions remain unfilled," the statement added.

"Moving toward this model is something that sounds possible, but I'm concerned about more immediate issues, like why haven't [the coroners service] done another review on domestic violence," Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Children and Youth Representative, said on Wednesday. "A major issue for children in B.C. is the domestic violence issue."

On Wednesday, Ms. Lapointe said the agency would like to hold another panel on domestic violence but does not have the budget to do so.

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Ms. Bond, who also serves as attorney general, is already facing calls to put more money into the justice system. In a report on the B.C. justice system released last month, lawyer Geoffrey Cowper made dozens of recommendations, including hiring five new judges to ease court backlogs.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More


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