Custody granted to child abusers
Toronto agency made realization only after child died: 'We didn't check the file' on the grandparents' assault convictions, CAS director admits
Saturday, February 22, 2003
TORONTO - Two convicted child abusers won custody of their four young grandchildren even as information about the pair's criminal records was buried in the files of the Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto.
The National Post has confirmed that only after one of those grandchildren, five-year-old Jeffrey Baldwin, died an emaciated shell of a little boy last Nov. 30 and a Toronto Police homicide investigation began, did the child-welfare agency belatedly discover the critical documents in their own system.
"It's in our files," a stricken Mary McConnville, the CCAS executive director, told the Post in an interview in her downtown Toronto office yesterday.
"We did not check our records," she said bluntly. "We were as astonished and as disturbed as you are when we found it."
The case preceded Ms. McConnville's takeover at the helm of the agency three years ago, but she was frank in her assessment of what happened.
"We think we have detected a significant flaw in our policies and really regret we were unaware of" the grandparents' convictions.
"We don't answer for one minute that we should not have known the histories here," she said yesterday.
Jeffrey died a month and 20 days shy of his sixth birthday when the 911 Toronto emergency centre received a call and firefighters arrived at his grandparents' ramshackle east-end home to find the boy not breathing. He was formally pronounced dead within the hour at the Hospital for Sick Children.
A post-mortem followed, but the horror of the child's life was immediately evident to the naked eye: Jeffrey weighed only 19 pounds -- three less than he had at the age of 18 months -- and resembled a concentration-camp victim, his belly grotesquely swollen, ribs prominently displayed, and skin so dessicated it hung in folds on limbs as thin as sticks. His body was also dotted with red sores and holes, his penis and tiny bum covered in scabs.
Police quickly learned that Jeffrey, and a sister who is a year older, were kept in a small locked room of the house, with nothing in it but two cribs and a small chest. While the little girl was allowed out to attend school, Jeffrey rarely escaped the bleak confines of the room, and was in such distress he would sometimes bang his head on the wall.
The homicide probe into Jeffrey's death continues, with the surviving three children now in the agency's care.
What the child-welfare agency missed in its files was clear documentation that two of the six adults then living in that house -- the two who had won official custody of Jeffrey, his two sisters and his baby brother with the implicit consent of the CCAS, which Ms. McConnville said yesterday "did not object" to the grandparents' plan -- were demonstrably dangerous to children.
Jeffrey's grandmother, 51-year-old Elva Bottineau, was convicted on June 10, 1970, of assault causing bodily harm in the death of her own baby daughter, five-month-old Eva.
A Toronto Star story of that date, headlined "Mother put on probation for assaulting her baby," reported that though Eva died of pneumonia the previous February, Toronto Police were called in when an autopsy revealed the infant had also suffered "tiny fractures of the shoulders, elbows and wrists," and that while Ms. Bottineau at first denied assaulting the baby, she later changed her story.
Due to the developing nature of child-abuse investigations at that time, and the lack of sophisticated diagnostic tools such as bone scans that only became available years later, the assault was then believed to be unrelated to the baby's death.
Modern investigations have shown that pneumonia may be linked to such injuries as rib fractures, which inhibit the ability of an infant or young child to breathe properly or cough to clear her lungs.
The prosecutor in Eva's case was Patrick LeSage, who later went on to become the distinguished chief justice of the Ontario Court, and he told Judge Crawford Guest that no purpose would be served by putting Ms. Bottineau, whom he said a psychiatrist had described as "mentally defective, but not mentally ill, and impatient and aggressive," in jail. The judge agreed and sentenced her to a year's probation
Eight years later, it was Jeffrey's grandfather's turn in court.
Norman Kidman, now in his 50s, was convicted of two counts of assault causing bodily harm on Dec. 29, 1978, in connection with assaults on two of Ms. Bottineau's children, then about five and six, by her former relationship. Mr. Kidman was sentenced to two years' probation and fined $150 for each count by Judge Walter Hryciuk.
The two children were later made Crown wards and subsequently adopted.
But Ms. Bottineau and Mr. Kidman went on to have four youngsters of their own, one of whom presented them with the four grandchildren.
The story of how Ms. Bottineau and Mr. Kidman won custody of those children is unclear.
As the Post revealed last December in a report about Jeffrey's death, it appears there may have been three separate court processes involved, with the grandparents gaining custody first of one child, then of Jeffrey and one of his sisters, and then, finally, their baby brother shortly after his birth.
The Catholic Children's Aid was involved, Ms. McConnville confirmed yesterday, because of "protection concerns" about the children's parents.
At one point, the children's mother was reported to the agency after she was seen shaking one of the youngsters in a welfare office.
It appears that what happened is that the grandparents came forward, with the consent of the children's parents, and sought custody privately in family court -- and that at least once, and perhaps as many as three times, the CCAS did not contest their application. "The parents were the subject of our protection concerns," Ms. McConnville said yesterday, "not the grandparents. It was the parents who were involved with us."
But, in fact, as Ms. McConnville agreed, it is not parents or prospective guardians who are the real clients in the child-welfare business, but rather vulnerable children.
"That's a perfectly legitimate question," she said yesterday, adding that in Jeffrey's case, "Here we had a record and somehow we didn't get to it."
As soon as the grandparents' histories were found in the agency's files, Ms. McConnville said, the CCAS set about finding out what had gone awry.
As it turned out, she said, "There was no policy at that time that staff check" files in cases where relatives are seeking custody of children considered at risk with their own parents -- this is what's known as "kinship care" in the child-welfare business. Jeffrey's case, Ms. McConnville said, "raises the question of whether we approach extended family differently than we do others who are trying to plan for children." It is not unusual, she said, "for family members to come forward where we have protection concerns."
Ms. McConnville stressed that "we did not knowingly place" the four youngsters at risk and emphasized that the discovery of the grandparents' criminal records came after the little boy's death. "There is a policy now," she said. "There wasn't then."
She said the agency's failure to focus on the child as the client, and not the involved adults, is one of the most troubling aspects of the case.
"It's a significant concern," she told the Post, "and it's one I've had all my years in child welfare -- that it is the child who is the client, that the child does need to be the focus of our concerns."
It is not the first time that CCAS staff have had difficulty making the distinction.
Most recently, it was another CCAS client, Jordan Heikamp, who came to public attention.
The baby was just five weeks old when in the early summer of 1997 he starved to death at a native women's shelter chock-a-block with helping professionals while under the ostensible supervision of an agency social worker.
Both that worker, Angie Martin, and Jordan's teenage mother, Renee Heikamp, were charged criminally in the baby's death, but were later discharged after a preliminary hearing.
But both women testified at length at an eight-week coroner's inquest that examined Jordan's death in the spring of 2001. Of all the evidence the jury heard, perhaps the most alarming was Ms. Martin's revelation that she believed she could never "impose" her will on the teenage mother, and her apparent belief that it was the young mother, and not baby Jordan, who was her client.
Three years before Jordan's death, another tiny charge of the CCAS was in the headlines.
This was baby Sara Podniewicz, who died gasping for breath, her lungs filled with pneumonia, in her car seat at the age of six months and 10 days.
Sara had endured 24 broken bones -- including 16 fractured ribs, broken legs and a broken arm -- at the hands of her crack-addled parents, Michael Podniewicz and Lisa Olsen, who were, two years later, convicted of second-degree murder in the baby's death.
The trial jurors learned that though Podniewicz had been convicted earlier of aggravated assault on the couple's first child, Mikey Jr. -- an attack that left the infant deaf, blind, partially paralyzed and with the permanent mental age of 10 weeks -- he was nonetheless allowed, after his release from prison, to move back in with his wife, then pregnant with Sara, and their other three children.
A condition of his parole was that he not be alone with his children unless accompanied by a "responsible adult," yet somehow, with the approval of both his parole officer and the CCAS, Olsen was approved as that person.
The agency had a worker assigned to supervise the family, and had another worker contracted from another agency to monitor the home.
These workers both testified at the murder trial, where they were questioned at length about their cheerful notes about the baby's alleged progress.
"This is extremely upsetting," Ms. McConnville said yesterday. "We have a tragedy on our hands, and the only thing we can do is try to learn from it. It's very painful."
Christie Blatchford can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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