Parents show 'dignity, composure and strength' in questioning day home operator who killed toddler

It was a rare scene in a Calgary courtroom Thursday as two parents were allowed to question the day home operator who killed their toddler, 22-month-old Mackenzy Woolfsmith.

22-month-old Mackenzy Woolfsmith died after suffering multiple blunt-force traumas at private day home

Dan and Jen Woolfsmith lost their daughter Mackenzy in 2012 when she was fatally injured by a day home operator, who later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. They have been attending a fatality inquiry into the toddler's death this week. (Jen Lee/CBC)

It was a rare scene in a Calgary courtroom Thursday as two parents were allowed to question the day home operator who killed their toddler, 22-month-old Mackenzy Woolfsmith.

Afterward, the judge praised Dan and Jen Woolfsmith for their "dignity, composure and strength."

Caitlyn Jarosz pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2015 before being sentenced to 5½ years in prison. Now out on parole, she testified at the fatality inquiry Thursday via closed-circuit TV from her halfway house in Red Deer. 

Though there were concerns Jarosz did not tell the truth when she explained how the child was injured, Mackenzy's mother kept with the spirit of the inquiry when she asked questions designed to identify changes that could be made in order to prevent similar deaths in the future.

Jen and Dan Woolfsmith sat at a table in the courtroom normally reserved for lawyers. Jen questioned Jarosz without a hint of anger or bitterness. 

"With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything we missed?...  Was there anything we could have done differently to support you to provide care to Mackenzy?" asked the mother.

"No, you were both great parents," said Jarosz.

Both women were crying throughout the exchange which began when Jarosz confirmed she'd had a "good" relationship with Mackenzy and her parents.

Outside of court Jen Woolfsmith told reporters it would be easy to vilify Jarosz, something which could lead other parents to be over-confident a situation like this could never happen to them.

"When you have a nice, neat binder full of evidence that points only to the bad stuff it's very easy to vilify her and to paint the picture that she is just a monster," Woolfsmith said.

"Hearing her describe how it happened isn't as important as why it happened, because that's what we were here for was to try and understand why this happened so it will never happen again."

Regardless of how or why the toddler was killed, both parents wanted it to be remembered that even in tragedy, there is some good: after she died, Mackenzy's organs were donated, helping to save other children's lives. 

Mackenzy Woolfsmith died from multiple blunt force trauma in 2012. (Submitted by the Woolfsmith family)

Earlier in her earlier testimony, as Judge Josh Hawkes asked questions of Jarosz, she said the child had fallen down carpeted stairs and began crying. Jarosz described picking her up and taking Mackenzy into a bedroom where the girl's abrupt silence caused her to panic and said she began shaking the toddler, who then hit her head on the carpeted floor. 

Lead homicide Det. Mike Cavilla said outside the courtroom that Jarosz's story did not match the medical evidence or the agreed statement of facts.

"The medical doctors described Mackenzy's injuries as catastrophic in nature, which could not have been caused by a simple "short fall" down a carpeted set of stairs.   

"Jarosz opted not to tell the truth today about what really happened to Mackenzy on May 2, 2012," said Cavilla.

The day before, Mackenzy had suffered an injury to her mouth at the day home but Jarosz said she didn't remember how it happened.

'I thought I had everything under control'

The medical examiner told the inquiry Monday the girl suffered swelling of the brain, bruising on various parts of her body and a spinal cord injury. Dr. Bamidele Adeagbo said the child's injuries were not consistent with a fall down stairs and would have been the result of more force.

The police investigation into the toddler's death revealed three other children who attended Jarosz's day home had also been injured — including a broken bone — while in her care.

At that time, Jarosz was taking care of four young children. She said she had taken two more into her care for financial reasons. In hindsight, Jarosz said, she had taken on too many children. 

"Did you feel like you had support during those two years? Maybe you started to feel a little bit isolated?" asked Hawkes.

Jarosz said she did feel isolated: "I didn't recognize it, I thought I had everything under control, that I was fine," she said.

Hawkes asked Jarosz about day home operators' responsibility to report injuries. She confirmed the parents' rights should trump the operator's right to privacy. She also agreed with the judge that social services or a similar agency should be notified when a child is hurt at a day home.

Dan Woolfsmith says he'd like to see Alberta update its child-care legislation and improve its monitoring system so unlicensed day homes can be tracked.

'A terrible tragedy that blindsided you'

In a moving moment before the inquiry broke for lunch, Hawkes addressed the grieving parents:

"Some things, particularly tragedies of this scale, are only apparent in hindsight. You asked 'did we miss anything, was there a red flag we didn't see?' There wasn't. And I would feel heartbroken if one of the unintended consequences of this process was to leave you with any lingering doubt or concern about that. I have had a lot of experience with tragedy. This isn't about you or something you missed or ... or something that you should have known; this was a terrible tragedy that blindsided you.

"One of the things about being a trial judge is that you are routinely exposed to some of the worst things that can happen. In that context, you often see the worst of people, and it is somewhat surprising you also see the best of people in those very difficult and trying circumstances.

"I would like to thank everyone this morning, particularly the Wolfsmiths for their very thoughtful questions, for the dignity, composure and strength they have shown throughout. We are all indebted to you for that. Thank you."

Those words meant the world to Mackenzy's mother.

"I'm a bereaved mom and us bereaved moms have a lot of guilt, so I am extraordinarily grateful for his words today and I will take them with me," she said.

About the Author

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary reporter

Meghan Grant is the courts and crime reporter for CBC Calgary.