“I’m going to have another child,” Deborah Ellis said defiantly during the Toronto inquest into the death of her infant daughter, Vicky. “And just let anyone try and stop me.” Nobody can. Only compulsory sterilization or the menopause can stop Mrs. Ellis. The first is illegal and the second, while inevitable, is hardly i4mminent in a healthy 29-year-old woman. Already she has given birth to five babies—three died in her care and the other two were made permanent wards of the province. And now all the judges, doctors and social welfare agencies in the country are powerless in the face of Mrs. Ellis’ inalienable right to bear more children. Nor, as last month’s inquest made tragically clear, can the system protect them from a mother diagnosed as psychopathic, paranoid, passive-aggressive, hysterical and “a danger to any children she may have.”
The Ellis inquest was one of the longest and most sensational in Ontario history,
lasting more than five weeks. It had, as coroner Elie Cass said in his summation to the jury, “all the elements of the classic Greek tragedy.” Vicky Ellis, aged one month, died on March 2, 1977, suffering from gastro-enteritis, dehydration, and swelling of the brain brought on by improper feeding of a high-sodium-level formula. However, the real causes of her death go back almost 30 years to her mother’s deprived childhood. According to testimony, Deborah Dorrington, as she was then, was continually abused by her own mother and grandmother until she was forced to leave home at 15. Consequently, all her life Deborah has been seeking and not finding a loving, accepting substitute mother. That’s why pregnancy, even the pain of childbirth is welcome— because it’s a chance for Deborah to be born again. In this inversion Deborah becomes the child, at least psychologically. But since the child can’t become the mother Deborah wants, she retaliates with hostility, neglect and abuse. When the baby either dies or is taken from her, Deborah then feels a sense of real loss and
attempts either to regain the child or to, have another one. It is a cyclical pattern that is repeated endlessly and tragically.
Deborah’s first child, Charlene Dorrington, was born in December, 1969, and admitted to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in September, 1971, bruised, filthy, dehydrated and, according to doctors, within 15 minutes of death. She was discharged nearly two months later in the care of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society; her mother was convicted of neglect and placed on three years probation. Darlene Dorrington was born in August, 1971. Eleven months later, battered and dehydrated, she was dead. A coroner’s jury found she had choked on her own vomit and cited as contributing factors physical and emotional neglect by her mother and possible errors of judgment by supervising authorities. It was at this point that Brooks Ellis, then 19, made his entrance in the psychodrama. Deborah, who was sharing an apartment with his family, seduced him and then suggested they marry.
Since the marriage, Mrs. Ellis appears to have transferred her violent hostilities
from her children to her husband. Psychiatrists have described their union as sado-masochistic with Deborah flaunting her lovers in front of Brooks and then beating him. The Ellises have had three children although Brooks doubts whether any of them are really his. Parrish Ellis was bom in December, 1973. He drowned in May, 1975, when he was left unattended in a bathtub. A second son, Brooks Jr., was born in April, 1975, and apprehended by the Children’s Aid Society a month later. He was made a permanent ward of the court in January, 1977. With two babies dead and another two in protective custody, the Children’s Aid Society moved swiftly and authoritatively when Deborah Ellis became pregnant a fifth time. The CAS apprehended Vicky Ellis shortly after she was born on February 1, 1977. But only a week later, Family Court Judge Norris Weisman returned custody of Vicky to the parents. It proved to be a death sentence.
How could the judge, who only a month before had made Brooks Jr. a permanent ward of the court, turn around and send Vicky back to her parents? He could and he
did because he relied on the “expert” testimony of social worker Ruth Parry, then assistant director of the Family Court Clinic of the Clarke Institute—an adjunct of the Family Court. Although Parry was not a psychiatrist and had known Deborah and Brooks Ellis only four months, she claimed there was no risk in sending Vicky Ellis home to her parents provided they were given supervision which she volunteered to provide. It is now clear that Parry based her recommendation on insufficient evidence. She was unfamiliar with the psychiatric reports on Deborah and Brooks Ellis and she claims she never saw the coroner’s verdict on Darlene. Instead, Parry, a social worker of 25 years experience, based her recommendations on her faith in the Ellis family and the trusting relationship she had developed with them. Despite the objections of the CAS, who, together with the Catholic Children’s Aid Society, had worked with the Ellis family for nearly six years, Judge Weisman agreed with Parry. Like a missionary saving souls, Parry determined to rehabilitate Deborah Ellis. In her zeal she abandoned both objectivity and the welfare of the child. She was not alone. Even though the CAS had apprehended Vicky at birth (and were later to argue against returning her to the Ellises) they brought her to Deborah Ellis in the hospital to try, under supervision, to induce normal maternal feelings in the mother. Curing the mother while killing the child seems to have been the order of the day. Acting on the same principle during the custody hearing. Judge Weisman ruled inadmissible the jury verdict on the infant Darlene.
The coroner’s jury has brought down more than 80 recommendations. Among them: Mr. and Mrs. Ellis should undergo long-term psychiatric treatment and abandon the idea of having any more children. If, as coroner Elie Cass says is inevitable,
Deborah Ellis again becomes pregnant, the baby should be apprehended immediately and taken into Crown wardship. In a wider context the jury has recommended an expansion of the province’s child abuse registry, legal representation for children in Family Court, the establishment of child abuse teams in every city or county, improved access to information by childcare workers, and a greater degree of cooperation between child welfare agencies.
The findings have been well received. Already, Keith Norton, Minister of Community and Social Services, has announced plans to reform the Child Welfare Act based in part on the results of the Ellis inquest. But nobody is yet looking at the effectiveness of the whole “profession” of social work, although clearly it must bear a large share of the responsibility for the awful tragedy of Deborah Ellis and her family. SANDRA MARTIN
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