Six children 'suffered extensive neglect'

A judge has ordered the province to pay almost $1 million to six children as compensation for the Ministry of Children and Family Development's failure to remove them from an abusive home when it was readily apparent they needed protection.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Barbara Fisher ordered the B.C. government to pay the plaintiffs $988,000 in a decision handed down on Tuesday.

The Crown admitted liability in the case, based on the ministry's act of returning the three oldest children to their parents after apprehending them earlier, and failing to apprehend the three younger ones when they were born. The trial, therefore, was concerned only with the assessment of damages.

Two of the six children are now adults and five of them have been diagnosed with alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders that have affected their cognitive function and intellectual capacity. Their identities are protected by a publication ban. The couple had a total of 11 children, but only six were plaintiffs in this case.

The three oldest children were born between 1990 and 1993. During that time, social workers expressed concern about the parents' alleged use of drugs and alcohol, physical violence with each other, limited parenting abilities, poor judgment and resistance to ministry intervention, according to the court judgment.

Police visited the family home at the request of a neighbour on March 28, 1993, two months after the third child was born, and observed that the parents were unable to care for their three small children due to their level of alcohol intoxication. The ministry then apprehended the children.

The two younger children were taken to hospital after foster parents saw bruises on the second oldest, who was 15 months old at the time. The examining doctor observed bruises on her neck, both sides of her face, abdomen and lower back, and said he thought these injuries were severe and nonaccidental. On April 13, the ministry found that the children were in need of protection due to abuse of the little girl and excessive alcohol consumption by the parents.

The children's parents agreed to attend drug and alcohol counselling and in August signed a letter of expectation in which they agreed to participate in parenting, alcohol abuse and anger management programs and to maintain contact with social workers. On Aug. 8, 1993, the ministry returned the children, all under three, to their parents.

Between August 1993 and June 1999, the mother gave birth to five more children. Social workers continued to visit the family, giving a mixture of positive and negative reports about the state of the home and the children. The ministry received more than a dozen reports from both teachers and anonymous citizens citing concerns including: domestic violence, alcohol abuse, rats and mice in the home, the fact that the children were hungry, dirty, often sick and frequently left unattended. There were also reports of bruises on the second-oldest girl.

Social workers investigated all the allegations, but in most cases found them to be unsubstantiated.

But in August 1998 a police officer found the father and another man intoxicated at 5: 15 a.m. with six children in the house. A social worker noted that the house was unclean and smelled of urine. The next day, the ministry removed the children, and placed them in foster homes.

A doctor who examined the children at the time found them to be generally healthy and not malnourished, with the exception of the second-oldest girl, who had a severely deformed ear, the same kind of injury that boxers get. In a consultation report, he stated that he had the "gravest concerns about this child's future, should she ever be returned to her biological family."

And yet, that is exactly what happened in November 1998, when the children were again returned to their parents. The ministry had decided they were low-risk because the parents had agreed to abide by a number of conditions, which included supervision by Metis Family Services.

In March 1999, the doctor who had attended to the second-oldest daughter learned she had been returned to her family and wrote to the ministry that she was at "extreme risk." In May, the ministry removed that daughter, followed by the rest of the children when the couple's eighth child, born later that month, tested positive for cocaine. The children have all since resided in various placements and foster homes.

B.C. Public Guardian and Trustee Catherine Romanko, who speaks for the children, said she was pleased the court had awarded them damages.

"These young people suffered extensive neglect and in one case, physical abuse, in their family home. They were not provided with basic adequate food, clothing, housing or normal family environment over many years," she said in a statement. "This is a significant decision with respect to children who were not protected in a timely manner after their need became known to provincial authorities and we are still assessing the broader implications of this carefully reasoned judgment."

The case was somewhat unusual in that the provincial government, was, in some capacity, both plaintiff and defendant. As of the beginning of 2011, the Public Guardian and Trustee had legal matters pending against the provincial government on behalf of 13 children in its care, Romanko said.

A Ministry of Children and Family Development spokeswoman said she could not speculate on what will happen next as the government is considering its options in light of the judge's decision.

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