Canada

Children in danger

Inquests will examine the tragic deaths of nine kids

PATRICIA CHISHOLM September 30 1996
Canada

Children in danger

Inquests will examine the tragic deaths of nine kids

PATRICIA CHISHOLM September 30 1996

Children in danger

Inquests will examine the tragic deaths of nine kids

She had three fractures in her arms, three in her legs and 15 broken ribs. Chest injuries, most likely the result of violent blows, had weakened her lungs and filled them with blood. Her weight was dangerously low. Most adults would consider themselves unlucky to experience any one of those conditions in a lifetime, but Sara Podniewicz had endured them all before she died of pneumonia, age six months, 10 days. Last week, a Toronto judge sentenced her crack-addicted parents to lengthy jail terms for her murder. In the past, that might normally have been the end of the matter. But on the same day as the sentencing, Ontario’s deputy chief coroner, James Cairns, announced that a task force will study why 49 Ontario children have died while their families were under the supervision of children’s aid societies in the past five years. There will also be inquests into the deaths of nine of the children, including Sara. “We can’t expect perfection,” says Cairns, “but the Podniewicz case is about as obvious as it gets. There is a core

Who kills the children!

Perpetrators of Ontario’s 128 homicides of under-18s in the past five years

group of high-risk kids we can protect.”

In another indicator of stiffening resolve, Justice John O’Driscoll fairly seethed with anger and disgust as he handed down the sentences in the Podniewicz trial—at least 25 years without parole for Sara’s father, Michael, 33, and 15 years for her mother, Lisa Olsen, 30. Calling the infant’s death in 1994 a “slaughter of the innocent,” the judge said he could not imagine a worse case of second-degree murder.

In the past five years, at least 66 children died at the hands of a parent in Ontario. But it is by no means the first province to wake up to the appalling reality of Canadian children dying because of neglect and abuse: last November, British Columbia provincial court Judge Thomas Gove issued a damning report, concluding that a slew of doctors, social workers and government officials failed to protect fiveyear-old Matthew Vaudreuil, who was systematically starved, tortured and then smothered by his mother in 1992. In New Brunswick, two parents at the centre of a sensational trial last spring, Steven and Lorelei Turner, are appealing their manslaughter conviction in the 1994 starving death of their three-year-old son, John Ryan Turner. That case raised alarms over the ability of society to protect its vulnerable young, although the rules were apparently followed: two Ontario social workers brought in to investigate the case absolved New Brunswick officials of any negligence. And if many Canadians still point the finger of blame at social workers, that would be simplistic, says Toronto child psychiatrist Jim Wilkes. “We really have to admit that it’s everyone’s problem,” he says.

That is the point established by several of the recent brutal cases. During

the Podniewicz trial last spring, for instance, it became clear that Sara’s death was preventable. At the time of her murder, her father was on parole after serving three years of a five-year sentence for aggravated assault—in 1988, he had shaken his 10week-old son so hard that the child was left deaf, blind, partially paralyzed and brain damaged. As a condition of parole, Podniewicz was not to be alone with any of his children without the presence of his com-

mon-law wife, Olsen. But because he and Olsen had five of their six children living with them, social service agencies knew that the condition was unenforceable.

In the Toronto case, weekly visits by a social worker from the Metropolitan Toronto Catholic Children’s Aid Society and consultations with doctors failed to detect the abuse baby Sara was suffering. Two weeks before she died, when Sara was taken to a hospital with a broken arm, social workers

believed the parents’ unlikely tale of an accident. What is more, doctors took no notice of visible signs of abuse, including fractured ribs that showed up on an X-ray taken at the time.

Certainly, some things have changed since Sara died. Colin Maloney, executive director of the Metropolitan Toronto Catholic Children’s Aid Society, says that any significant injury to a child who is under the society’s care is now automatically referred to the child-abuse unit at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. And any child at risk will be monitored by a team of professionals. In the past, usually only a social worker and a supervisor regularly discussed a case: other experts were not alerted until abuse actually occurred.

The general problem of abuse is staggering in its proportions. At the beginning of this year, there were 20,000 children in Ontario who had been removed from their families by children’s aid societies because of their ill-treatment at home. Another 150,000 are monitored in their homes by social workers. In British Columbia, 184,000 children are watched by child-welfare agencies, about one in five of the province’s children. According to Gove’s report, the B.C. system of child welfare requires a massive overhaul. He severely criticized child-welfare officials for failing to put the interest of their charges first, and pointed out that in Matthew Vaudreuil’s case a platoon of experts—at least 21 social workers and 24 physicians—had failed to recognize the danger he was in. And while the NDP government has implemented some of Gove’s recommendations, it came under heavy fire last summer for its failure to move more quickly. One prominent critic, provincial ombudsman Dulcie McCallum, took the extraordinary step of publicly chastising the government, expressing her “profound concern” over the deaths of children—at least 14 more since Gove’s report—in the care of the ministry of social services.

Some progress, however, is being made. Grant Reid, a professor of social work at the University of Manitoba, and Eric Sigurdson, a Winnipeg pediatrician and child psychiatrist, have developed the Manitoba Risk Estimation System, a procedure to help social workers identify and assess what kind of protection children might need. Already in use in Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Ont., Texas, Washington state and New Zealand, the system evaluates factors such as economic pressures, drug abuse and aggressive behavior to develop an overall risk picture. While it can never be a foolproof formula, Reid cautions, having all the facts greatly improves the chances of spotting high-risk children before it is too late. With luck, the failure to save such children may even come to be a rare event.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM

BARRY CAME

CHRIS WOOD