How to spare a child's pain
Custody policy arrives too late
Monday, February 24, 2003
It is difficult to say which was the more shocking, the news about how Jeffrey Baldwin's case was handled at the Catholic Children's Aid Society or the remarkable frankness with which Mary McConnville, the agency boss, was prepared to discuss it.
This was the case, revealed in Saturday's National Post, which showed that even as two convicted child abusers were winning custody of Jeffrey and their three other young grandchildren in family court in the late 1990s, lost in the CCAS's own files was documentation of the grandparents' criminal convictions.
It was only after the Toronto Police homicide squad began to probe the little boy's cruel death -- by pneumonia, his emaciated and debilitated body without the resources to fight it -- last Nov. 30 that the agency belatedly searched its own internal files and discovered the grandparents' records.
Elva Bottineau, now 51, was convicted as a 19-year-old in 1970 of assault causing bodily harm in the death of her own five-month-old baby Eva, who, like Jeffrey, also died of pneumonia, but had also suffered small fractures -- now recognized as classic signposts of abuse -- at the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
Norman Kidman, also in his 50s, was convicted in 1978 of two counts of assault causing bodily harm in assaults on two of Ms. Bottineau's children from a previous relationship; the result was that those children were later made Crown wards and adopted.
Yet, when the pair came forward, on as many as three separate occasions, to seek custody of their daughter's son Jeffrey and his siblings, no one at the CCAS checked their own files, with the result that the agency did not oppose their various applications -- in essence, by its silence, the CCAS implicitly endorsed Ms. Bottineau and Mr. Kidman as fit caregivers.
Ms. McConnville acknowledged all this last week in an interview, and in doing so, departed significantly from her predecessor at the agency and provided a sterling example for her staff and indeed the entire child-welfare business of accountability in action.
She has been at the helm of the CCAS only about three years -- the Baldwin case preceded her -- and deserves all the credit in the world for trying to turn around the troubled culture of this organization.
In earlier cases involving the agency, such as the 1997 starvation death of baby Jordan Heikamp and the 1994 murder of baby Sara Podniewicz, the first response of the CCAS leadership was always to deny there was a problem, the second to defend its indefensible actions -- or lack of them.
There remains no better illustration of this than the 2001 coroner's inquest into Jordan's death, where, until Ms. McConnville herself took the witness stand, virtually every witness from the CCAS -- including social worker Angie Martin and her direct supervisor and others -- testified that Ms. Martin's shoddy work on the file was simply stellar.
Since Jordan had wasted unto a skeleton in the native women's shelter where he and his teenage mother were living with Ms. Martin's approval and ostensibly under her protective gaze, and since she took virtually no steps to make sure he was being properly fed, the sum of that testimony was transparently preposterous.
Yet that was the agency story, and but for Ms. McConnville, who made an 11th-hour acknowledgement that ''things could have been handled better,'' the CCAS stuck to it throughout: Angie Martin's work was ''appropriate'' and she had adhered to all the agency policies.
Ms. McConnville is clearly shattered by what has happened in Jeffrey's case, and was quick to say that ''We don't answer for one minute that we should not have known the histories here.''
That said, and with all due credit to Ms. McConnville, this cannot be where it ends. To borrow from Winston Churchill, her frankness should not be the end of CCAS accountability, or the beginning of accountability's end, but perhaps the end of its beginning.
Ms. McConnville said the belated discovery of the grandparents' records detected a serious flaw in the agency's policies. There was no formal directive, she said, requiring staff to cross-check files in cases where relatives -- such as grandparents -- seek custody of children whose parents are deemed unfit. There is one now.
But why was such a policy ever needed?
The first, fundamental and legal duty of any child-welfare agency is the protection of the vulnerable child. It would appear absolutely elementary, the very first order of business, that whoever steps forward to offer themselves up as prospective caregiver to such a child -- whether stranger, grandparent or aunt -- should be subjected to certain minimal screens such as a criminal records check, and a search of an agency's own files.
Indeed, the case could be made that with what is known about the effects of abuse, relatives of a parent who is deemed unfit should attract more suspicion, rather than less, than strangers. There is real evidence that abuse is sometimes generational, that the child who was abused may well become the abusing adult.
That the CCAS social workers had no such ''extended family'' directive, when Ms. Bottineau and Mr. Kidman sought custody of those four youngsters, does not speak to the need for one, but rather to what I would argue is a systemic problem with the child-welfare business.
Social workers, by dint of their academic education and training, are well-equipped for what might be termed the touchy-feely side of their business -- good at getting troubled parents get help; good at holding their hands; good at listening and ''sharing'' and teaching in a non-judgmental way; good at keeping families together. All of this is important, useful and terribly difficult work, and there is no doubt that social workers do it well.
Where they fall woefully short is as child-abuse investigators: Unlike cynical police officers or coroners or prosecutors, for instance, who learn early on that people in difficulty lie and to look beyond how they may appear superficially, social workers are ill-equipped at what's sometimes called ''thinking dirty.''
Yet this remains an inherent function of child-welfare work. Social workers are the front lines. They are often the very first professionals to see danger signs, and all other decisions made afterwards about a child's well-being may cascade down from how well they recognize them, and how thoroughly they investigate.
In short, it will not be good enough, two or three years down the road, in some criminal court or coroner's inquest -- with Jeffrey's death still being probed by homicide detectives, it is unclear how or where the case will be resolved -- to have the relevant workers here testify that the boy's grandparents ''presented as caring and capable,'' or that there was no specific policy at the time about checking out relatives first before allowing them to gain custody.
Such a policy should never have been necessary in the first place, and there is something awry that those charged with protecting young children would require one. Accountability does not end with acknowledgement of failure. It must incorporate change, and consequence.
Jeffrey Baldwin knew consequence. He did not live to his sixth birthday. He weighed but 19 pounds at his death, and his body was riddled with odd red sores and crusted scabs. He had been kept in a locked room, allegedly to keep him from drinking out of the toilet bowl. The magnitude of his suffering is unimaginable.
Christie Blatchford can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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