Thursday, January 17, 2008

'I don't want this appalling story to be repeated': Richard

'I don't want this appalling story to be repeated': Richard
Porovince's child advocate urges action to ensure welfare of N.B.'s children
Last Updated: Thursday, January 17, 2008 6:08 PM AT
CBC News
A scathing report by New Brunswick Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard says words can hardly express the anger and frustration he felt while trying to ascertain whether all that could have been done was done to prevent the death of a toddler.
Two-year-old Juli-Anna, whose last name can't be published under the Family Services Act, died of a perforated bowel in April 2004. An autopsy found that a plastic pencil-shaped toy, nine centimetres long and one centimetre in diameter, caused the perforation. It had been inside the girl for two to three days.
In Broken Promises: Juli-Anna's Story, Richard, who is also the province's ombudsman, paints a tragic picture of the toddler's short life. The report was released on Thursday, which would have been Juli-Anna's 6th birthday.
Investigation found repeated neglect
"We tried to learn as much as possible about this infant's short and tragic life so that we could try to understand what went wrong," Richard told a press conference. "I don't want this appalling story to be repeated."
The two-year investigation found that even before Juli-Anna was born, her mother, Anna-Marie Mooers, had been repeatedly investigated by child protection services in connection to the welfare of her other children.
Family and Community Services first visited Juli-Anna's home on a referral only eight days after her birth.
There were concerns about alleged neglect, drug use, a strained relationship with Mooers's family, missed rent payments, a dirty home and a transient nature. Reports investigated by Richard show Mooers had to be repeatedly advised of her responsibility to ensure her children's safety.
During the 27 months that Juli-Anna was alive, her family lived in 14 different places, and Child Protection Services received 16 referrals about the welfare of Mooers's children.
According to Richard's investigation, on March 19, 2004, Juli-Anna had been taken to hospital with mouth ulcers, old bruises and burn marks on her hands.
Juli-Anna 'not safe in her own home,' report says
But despite repeated complaints about the family and missed appointments, the living situation of Juli-Anna was consistently ranked low-risk, according to the report.
"In the end, this little girl was not safe in her own home, and the system intended to protect her did not do so," Richard writes.
"No child in a province like New Brunswick, in a country like Canada, should have to endure what Juli-Anna was forced to live through."
Mooers, 27, was found guilty of criminal negligence and sentenced to 27 months in prison in October 2007. Her ex-boyfriend, Curtis Brent Hathaway, was also charged in the case but was acquitted in October. He is now facing a charge of sexual assault involving a different child.
Richard said one of the most puzzling aspects of his investigation was that Family and Community Services repeatedly chose to close its file at an early stage and not conduct its own investigation despite several referrals being filed by "very reliable" sources.
Social workers assess 22 risk factors to determine if ongoing service will be provided to a family, Richard's report says. But it seems many of these factors were continually "underrated, minimized or misread" by the social workers involved with the family, the report says.
Past recommendations ignored
The investigation into Juli-Anna's death by the Office of the Ombudsman reviewed files from the Department of Family and Community Services, interviewed social workers involved with Juli-Anna's family, researched the policies and procedures of child protection services and examined previous reports by the province's child-death review committee.
Richard's report follows a similar one released by the province's child-death review committee in early-January.
Richard's 48-page document includes 16 recommendations on how New Brunswick needs to improve its child welfare.
There is a need for child protection workers to place a greater emphasis on chronic child neglect when assessing risk factors, the report says.
Service providers must make certain that the best interest and the safety of the child prevails over the interest of the family, it adds.
"I saw very clearly that workers struggled with the idea of taking action as a result of chronic neglect," Richard told reporters.
"It's easier to pursue cases of sexual or physical abuse. They're easier to prove, and you can establish the cases much easier. … Neglect happens over a long period, and it's just as nefarious, just as damaging to a child, but is much harder to prove in court."
Poor communication among agencies
Other recommendations in Richard's report include better communication between child protection workers and regional offices and other agencies.
He said his office's review found instances where front-line workers in Woodstock checking in on Juli-Anna were asking for help and guidance from Fredericton but received inadequate responses.
The hiring of more social workers and better training opportunities are also recommended.
To ensure the well-being of the province's children, the government must follow up on the recommendations contained in the report and those made in three previous documents, Richard said.
The John Ryan Turner report, published in 1996, the 1998 Jacqueline Brewer report and 2000's Children Come First report all addressed child welfare.
"These reports contain many significant recommendations to ensure such deaths could be prevented in the future," Richard writes. "Yet when Juli-Anna died on April 13, 2004, many of those recommendations had not been implemented."
"How many such reports will it take before we decide that enough is enough?" he asks. "Why is 'chronic neglect' still not viewed by child protection officials to be as detrimental to a child's best interest as 'abuse'?"
Political will and direction is need to ensure that the changes are made and the children are protected, the report states.