New Brunswick’s child protection system failed to protect five siblings from “damaging chronic neglect,” despite countless warnings about their safety.
The children were found covered in feces inside a filthy Saint John home in May 2016 when a sheriff happened to come to the home to evict them.
But an investigation by child and youth advocate Norm Bossé found there’d been several opportunities to save the children from further neglect.
The report, released on Monday, is called “Behind Closed Doors: A Story of Neglect.” It details the family’s historic involvement with social workers, but changes the family’s names to protect their identities.
“We find that the parents’ failure to provide the basic necessities of life to their children in this case was compounded by the failure of government to work effectively together to support the children and their parents with valuable social programs and supports,” Bossé wrote.
He said social workers didn’t meet the Department of Social Development’s standards in this case.
Bossé questioned whether any of them actually looked at the children. They’d never been to a dentist and one of the children had abscesses in his mouth.
“If any one of them had read the entire file … maybe things would have been different.,” he said.
Bossé announced a review of the case last year, as the parents received two-year prison sentences for failing to provide the necessaries of life.
The investigation found there were at least 26 formal “referrals” to the Department of Social Development about the children. Many of the complaints came from teachers.
‘Not an isolated case’
When they went to school, travelling alone by taxi, the two eldest children often arrived hungry and dirty.
The school frequently provided the two siblings with food and winter clothing, but Nathan, the oldest, elementary school-aged child, sometimes ate scraps from the garbage.
Nathan also told an educational assistant that he worked at a nearby garage, earning $100 per week cleaning, because of the family’s financial stress.
Complaints also came from police officers, neighbours, doctors and others.
Still, the children remained in their parents’ care, as they frequently moved and cycled through different social workers.
The mother often dodged visits with social workers. Just two weeks before the children were discovered, a social worker knocked on the family’s door but received no answer.
According to Bossé’s report, social workers did note problems with the children’s teeth in 2014, and the mother promised to take them to the dentist.
After the family moved to Saint John, the child and youth advocate found, the family’s case was initially considered one of the more benign ones on the caseload, paling against those of families who were “constantly in a state of crisis.”
But in 2015, social workers witnessed signs of neglect. One said she stopped a child, just in time, from falling out of an open, screenless window, the report said.
“While surveying the rest of the house, [she] remarked at how unclean it was and came across holes in walls, dangerous roofing tools within the children’s reach, cigarette butts everywhere and beds without sheets. All the children were very dirty and in need of a bath.”
The mother placed the youngest child in a bathtub, “but then left him unattended, seemingly unaware of the risks this posed.”
When asked about the severity of the neglect experienced by the children, one child protection supervisor said, “You always think about the community standard, for example, is Nathan the only kid whose clothes smell like urine?”
“Unfortunately, our review of the case, and several other similar cases that have arisen this year within the caseload of the Advocate’s office alone, confirm that this is not an isolated case,” Bossé wrote.
The report makes several recommendations to improve the system, including developing an “integrated service delivery” model, where information about vulnerable children could be better shared among different departments, and a “quality assurance policy” that would require regional officers to flag cases where they didn’t meet standards.
He also calls for the Department of Social Development to take “immediate steps” to make sure child protection workers understand their authority to “enter any premises to remove a child whose security or development may reasonably be believed to be in danger.”
The Saint John case also sparked a separate, wide review of New Brunswick’s child protection system, which was released last week.
Consultant George Savoury made more than 100 recommendations, including new child protection legislation, more training and changes to address staffing problems within the system.
Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard has promised to own both reports and be accountable about the department’s progress in implementing the recommendations.
She’s already determined that 60 of Savoury’s 107 recommendations can be acted on immediately.
Another 20 can be started now, while the rest may have “budget implications,” she said.
“We are going to have to fight for what I feel needs to be done for this department.
“Quite frankly, you can be damn sure I’m gonna.”
The executive director of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers hopes the recommendations will allow social workers to get the resources they need to do their jobs.
Miguel LeBlanc said child neglect can be one of the most difficult things to detect and address.
“I think the system is working but in this case it did fail,” he said.
The trauma of separation
The children, now living with their grandparents, are progressing well. But things haven’t been easy for them.
They required immediate medical attention after they were taken from their home. Doctors found they were malnourished, developmentally delayed and had rotting teeth.
“On the drive to the Social Development office, Nathan was visibly distressed, causing him to stutter so badly it was impossible for him to speak a full sentence,” the report says.
“He told the social workers that he and his siblings hadn’t eaten that day and that most days they go without food.”
Split up into two foster homes, some of the children showed signs of aggression. Others were gorging themselves on food after being used to worrying about their next meal.
A foster parent had to prematurely end the placement for Nathan, because she was worried for his safety.
“After he tried to hang himself with a scarf from a bunk bed, she was constantly worried that one day she’d discover him lifeless, causing her many sleepless nights,” the report says.
While the other children are doing better, Nathan is still struggling with the separation from his parents, Bossé said.
“He still blames himself for his parents being sent to jail.”