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'Almost inhuman' neglect of 5 siblings renews concerns about child protection

The court case of a Saint John couple convicted of endangering the lives of their five young children has renewed concerns about the systems that are supposed to protect children in New Brunswick.

Parents guilty of 5 counts of child endangerment 5 years after Social Development became involved, court hears

Crown prosecutor Patrick Wilbur submitted photographs of children's handprints mixed with feces on walls in the family's home. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

The court case of a Saint John couple convicted of endangering the lives of their five young children has renewed concerns about the systems that are supposed to protect children in New Brunswick.

The couple's children, aged seven months to 10 years old, were found smeared with human feces, malnourished and with rotting teeth in a filthy house strewn with garbage, provincial court heard during a sentencing hearing on Wednesday.

Did no one other than those two people — those parents living with those five children — know what was going on? The landlord? Social Development? Teachers at school?- Norm Bossé, child and youth advocate

The Department of Social Development had been involved with the family since 2012, said Crown prosecutor Patrick Wilbur.

But it wasn't the family's child protection workers who flagged the neglect, the courtroom heard.

It was four sheriff's deputies acting on an eviction order on May 17, 2016 for failure to pay rent who were so alarmed by the squalor that they called Social Development and Saint John police for help.

The parents, who cannot be named under a publication ban that protects the identities of the children, each pleaded guilty on Nov. 27, 2017, to five counts of failing to provide the children with the necessaries of life, thereby committing child endangerment.

New Brunswick's child and youth advocate Norm Bossé described the case as "very troubling … almost inhuman."

He said he hasn't decided yet whether he's going to order a review, but he attended Wednesday's sentencing hearing to learn more of the background.

Child and youth advocate Norm Bossé said he has serious concerns about the Saint John neglect case and wants to know how it could have happened. (CBC)

"The basic question would be — did nobody know about this? Did no one other than those two people — those parents living with those five children — know what was going on? The landlord? Social Development? Teachers at school?

"I'm not blaming anybody here, I'm just saying, there's a duty to report and it's a serious duty at law to report. Teachers, professionals, lawyers, doctors and the general public — we have a duty to report cases of abuse or negligence," Bossé told reporters outside the courthouse.

Crown seeks prison terms

Judge Marco Cloutier remarked during the sentencing hearing that Social Development was not on trial and he was not conducting an inquiry into how the neglect could have been prevented.

He heard submissions from the Crown and defence on the appropriate sentences, as the parents, who were sitting in the front row, about two feet apart, quietly cried and sniffled.

The couple are scheduled to return to Saint John provincial court for sentencing on April 18 at 1:30 p.m. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

The Crown argued the neglect was so severe, the parents should each receive a minimum two-year prison sentence.

The defence asked the court to consider conditional sentences, which could include house arrest in their new rent-to-own residence.

Cloutier has reserved sentencing until April 18 at 1:30 p.m.

In foster care

The couple's five children are now in foster care, the courtroom heard.

They have all exhibited signs of food deprivation, including gorging and impulse eating, said the Crown.

Wilbur said it's easy to understand why, since they were underweight and never knew when their next meal would be.

He submitted photographs showing "precious little" food in the kitchen cupboards and a nearly empty refrigerator, other than what appeared to be some kind of "vegetable matter" on the top shelf and two bottles of sauce.

The lack of food and nourishment was one of the most "egregious" areas of neglect, he said.

Sheriff's deputies were alarmed by the atrocious living conditions they discovered when they went to evict the family last May for failure to pay rent, the courtroom heard. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

Their dental neglect was "atrocious," said Wilbur, noting they never went to a dentist and all suffered advanced tooth decay.

The six-year-old had to have nine teeth extracted, an eight-year-old had four teeth pulled and the two-year-old's 10 teeth required "restoration," said Wilbur.

The children also missed a lot of school, he said. At least two of them were absent nearly 90 out of 148 days.

Wilbur described broken beds, a lack of blankets and human and dog feces matter spread on walls "by little hands."

Photographs of their home would suggest the children were "left to live in their own excrement," he said.

The rented home had to be demolished, the courtroom heard.

Should have had monthly visits

Wes McIntosh, the mother's defence lawyer, said Social Development had opened a child protection file on the family around the time the fifth child was born — about seven months before the deputies intervened and the children were seized.

The family should have had monthly checkup visits, said McIntosh.

"If people were checking up on them monthly, I don't know how this happened," he said. "Your teeth don't rot overnight."

His client "absolutely loved those children," he said.

But her "mistaken" view of being a mother meant she couldn't say "no" to them when she should have, he said, citing their demands for sugary food as an example.

The children turned wild, according to his client, and she just kind of gave up, McIntosh said. It became overwhelming for her, he said, adding she takes full responsibility.

The family's rented home was so damaged it was demolished. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

The father's defence lawyer, Joel Hansen, also pointed out home assessments were conducted and a social worker had been in the house just two months before the children were taken.

The living conditions were not the result of any drug or alcohol abuse, said Hansen. No addictions were "draining money" away, he said.

The parents were only aged 15 and 16 when they had their first child, said Hansen. The father worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Bossé said he will wait until after the sentencing to decide how to proceed, but he did say the case caused him concern.

"We've seen historically other cases in the Saint John area, and through the province, of neglect that have caused death of children," he said.

The province's child death review committee reports on cases of death or serious injury, but neglect charges are also serious offences, said Bossé.

"We need to make sure that we provide information to the public so that this can be prevented," he said.

"I have a duty, I have a responsibility to make sure that children are represented, and that if there's a recommendation that needs to be made with respect to this case, that I make it."

With files from Rachel Cave