Jury issues 13 recommendations following inquest into 2021 death of infant

The Yukon Inn, where the coroner’s inquest is taking place all week in Whitehorse. (Leslie Amminson/CBC)

Policy changes, better emergency preparedness among recommendations

Policy changes, more emergency preparation, and better education on safe sleep practices are among jury recommendations following an inquest into the death of an infant in Watson Lake, Yukon.

A six-day coroner’s inquest into Kaiya Stone-Kirk’s death wrapped on Saturday. The seven-month-old was reported dead on Aug. 1, 2021. Stone-Kirk was found to have suffocated at the home of a babysitter after being put to sleep on an adult bed.

A jury found the baby’s death was accidental. The purpose of the inquest was not to determine whether any party was at fault; rather, it set out to find the circumstances of the death and make recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future.

Children at home of babysitter

At the time of her death, Stone-Kirk and her 17-month-old brother were mainly in the care of their grandmother, Margaret Sue Stone, as per an arrangement with Family and Children’s Services (FCS). In her testimony, Stone explained the children’s parents struggled with substance use and were not able to look after them.

The week of Stone-Kirk’s death, FCS staff were scrambling to find a babysitter after Stone became too ill with COVID-19 to care for the children. The plan was to find someone who could watch the children short-term, until Stone recovered.

In the absence of a babysitter, social workers told the inquest they could have sent the children to Whitehorse, but that would have meant bringing them into formal care. Staff considered that a last resort, they said, as the preference for FCS staff and the family was to keep the children in their community with people who knew them.

But finding a place for the baby and toddler proved difficult. At the time, Watson Lake was experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19, and many households were sick or isolating, the inquest heard. The Stone-Kirk children had also tested positive for COVID-19.

Mimi Deacon, the social worker assigned to the children’s file, told the inquest she asked Cherly Wolftail to babysit. Wolftail, who lived near Watson Lake, had looked after the children in the past, and Deacon said she felt the family trusted her. Wolftail told the inquest

The Stone-Kirk children ended up spending two nights at Wolftail’s home, the jury heard. On the second night, the infant was put down to sleep on an adult bed and eventually became wedged between the bed and an adjacent wall. An autopsy showed the infant suffocated.

Throughout the inquest, lawyers pointed to Wolftail’s FCS records, which show there had been historical concerns she was unable to properly care for her own children when they were young. No concerns about her capabilities were brought to the Stone-Kirk family.

No safe sleep policy at time of death

When the children arrived at Wolftail’s home, FCS staff provided Wolftail with a bassinet and told her Stone-Kirk should sleep there. Wolftail testified she had moved Stone-Kirk from the bassinet to the bed because she had started moving around.

Dr. Charmaine Enns, a medical health officer in B.C. with expertise in infant mortality, testified the bassinet itself was also an inappropriate sleep space. Enns said it was too small for the baby, who was already seven months old and capable of rolling.

At the time, FCS had no formal policy around safe sleep practices for children, staff testified. The agency says it has since implemented one, but the jury further recommended updates to that policy as well as more mandatory training on the topic for staff. It also recommended FCS keep more safe sleep equipment, complete with owners’ manuals, at its offices.

It also recommended the Yukon regulate the social work profession, which is already regulated in all Canadian provinces as well as the Northwest Territories.

Babysitting policy unclear

Throughout the inquest, there was confusion over who is responsible for approving babysitters in a situation like the one faced by the Stone-Kirk family.

Under the family’s FCS agreement, they had control over medical decisions for the children and were free to hire babysitters without notifying the agency, staff told the inquest. The lines were found to be less clear when FCS was paying for the service or suggesting a babysitter.

Leeann Kayseas, director of FCS, said the agency was reviewing its policy to provide more clarity on such agreements.

The jury recommended creating emergency plans for similar situations, and keeping a roster of possible babysitters in Yukon communities.

May Stewart, justice director for the Liard First Nation, testified there’s a need to identify emergency caregivers in Watson Lake ahead of time.

She said the First Nation was in the early stages of planning for an emergency space in the community where children could be cared for if they need somewhere to go. The jury recommended FCS support the development of such resources.

The jury also recommended the Yukon government establish an infant mortality review committee. That was based on testimony from Enns, who told the inquest Yukon’s rate of safe sleep-related deaths among infants is much higher than that of neighbouring B.C.

Leslie Amminson, CBC News

Leslie Amminson is a journalist working with CBC's bureau in Whitehorse. You can reach Leslie with story tips and ideas at leslie.amminson@cbc.ca.

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