The so-called honour killings of three Montreal sisters and their stepmother revealed a "collective failure" among the various authorities responsible for protecting youth in the city, the co-director of the city's francophone youth protection services says.

In an interview with Radio-Canada, Suzanne Dessureault said important steps have been taken to better recognize and intervene in situations where family honour is at play since the 2009 murders.

English and French youth protection authorities were called in on two different occasions to address concerns about the girls, but there was no system in place that allowed the agencies to share information such as prior alerts involving the same family.

A Quebec-wide registry to share complaints among all youth protection agencies was in the works, but it was not operational until May 2009 — one month after the second complaint and just weeks before the murders.

Inside the Shafia family3:42

Risk indicators

"There was a real need for collective action to better understand the issues, develop a common vision, and adjust our way of working, our practices and our interventions," Dessureault said.

'You really have to be careful... It's a new issue for us and we have to take care to really understand what's going on.' -  Suzanne Dessureault, co-ordinator of the Direction de la protection de la jeunesse

Following the murders, educators, police, youth home staff and researchers were brought together to develop a collective action plan for determining cases connected to family honour.

A framework for identifying and evaluating indicators of such cases was developed based on earlier efforts in the United Kingdom and other countries, which Dessureault said are "more advanced" on the issue.

Those indicators are now being used by front line youth protection workers around the city as well as teachers, who Dessureault said are often the first to see the signs.

She gave the example of an adolescent girl who confides that her brother follows her to school every day and she's worried, or who receives threats that she'll be sent back to her country and forced to marry someone if it's discovered she has a boyfriend.

"By knowing how to distinguish, to understand the indicators and the risks, we can better intervene to help and protect adolescents who need protecting," she said.

"From the moment we receive word of a situation, we can match it to the risk indicators and an investigation can be undertaken," she said.

"We have to be vigilant in these situations."

A balanced vigilance

That vigilance has to be balanced with a keen awareness to avoid jumping to conclusions based on a family's ethnicity, she said.

"We have to be careful not to stigmatize, not to fall into the trap of automatically assuming that because they're from a different country and there's conflict with the daughter and her parents, that it's a case where honour is at play," she said.

"You really have to be careful... It's a new issue for us and we have to take care to really understand what's going on."

Of the 4,000 cases investigated by Montreal's youth protection services last year, Dessureault said about 30 involved possible indications that family honour was involved.