Charges against former foster parents in the death of a Manitoba toddler have been stayed just days before the case was supposed to go to court, the Canadian Press has learned.

When two-year-old Heaven Traverse died in a Winnipeg hospital on Jan. 14, 2005, police treated the case as a homicide. Before her death, she had been in foster care with Douglas and Darlene Sutherland in their home in Peguis.

In April 2006, RCMP charged Douglas Sutherland with two counts of assault with a weapon and his wife, Darlene Sutherland, with aggravated assault.

They were scheduled to appear Friday in a rural Manitoba courtroom for a preliminary hearing, but provincial court records indicate all charges against the couple were stayed on Oct. 26.

"My understanding is the Crown felt there was not sufficient evidence to proceed with the case," said Brian Kaplan, director of regional prosecutions for Manitoba Justice.

The Crown attorney on the case, Rustyn Ullrich, declined comment, but a justice department spokeswoman forwarded an e-mail on his behalf.

"On the Crown's assessment of the evidence available to date, the Crown is of the view that there is no reasonable likelihood of conviction," the statement says.

With a stay of charges, prosecutors have one year to reactivate them.

Family shocked

Heaven's family was shocked to hear the development.

"I'm just choked for words," Heaven's uncle, Darryl Traverse, told the Canadian Press.

"It's really saddening. I can't even think right now. We've lost a lot.… It's torn our family apart."

Heaven's biological father, Lawrence Traverse, said he hasn't given up hope. He recently received a letter from the RCMP saying they would continue to investigate.

"I'm just going to work harder," he said.

Heaven's death is one of several foster child cases that have outraged Manitobans in recent years— anger that forced the provincial government to order a review of the province's child welfare system.

Nearly 10,000 children's cases were reviewed, and the government pledged close to $42 million over three years to hire new social workers and improve child welfare services.