A woman who so severely neglected and starved her grandson that he wasted away and died portrayed herself in testimony Wednesday at a coroner's inquest as the boy's only hope, lest he be shipped off to foster care.
Jeffrey Baldwin died in 2002 at age five, having withered away to the weight of a baby and being unable to lift his own head. His grandmother, Elva Bottineau, kept the boy and one of his sisters in a cold, fetid room, where they slept among their own waste, the inquest has heard.
The children's parents were barely out of childhood themselves when they had four kids in quick succession, and nearly as swiftly they were taken away by children's aid and handed over to the grandparents.
Both Bottineau and her partner Norman Kidman, who are now serving life sentences for Jeffrey's second-degree murder, had previous convictions for child abuse when they were granted custody of Jeffrey and three siblings — something the Catholic Children's Aid Society only discovered in its files after the boy's death.
Asked during testimony about a series of diplomas that were on the wall of her home, including one for child psychology, the Grade 9 dropout — with an IQ of 69 — swore they were real, from correspondence courses. She wanted to know how a child's mind works and learn "what Jeffrey was going through," she said.
Bottineau was having a hard time with Jeffrey, she said, describing him as having a "slow learning ability."
"If I asked him to pick up a fork he would go to the spoon, not the fork," she said.
"When I put the crayon inside of his hand...I would try to get him to do circles on the paper, he wouldn't do it. When I tried to talk with him, that was something else. He would just look at me and it was like a cold stare. He didn't want to do it."
Bottineau spent much of her testimony disparaging her daughter's parenting skills. She didn't want the kids to go into foster care, she said, so she had to look after them.
Surviving siblings have fared well in foster care
Contrasted to Bottineau's fears about children's aid societies was a statement from Jeffrey's surviving siblings, read Wednesday at the inquest by their lawyer, saying they have flourished in the care of their loving, supportive foster parents.
They have grown up in separate homes but have regular contact, often having dinner at each other's homes and going on an annual camping trip, said lawyer Freya Kristjanson.
"Despite their horrific early upbringing, the children have all made tremendous gains and are getting on with their lives," she said. "The siblings will always be impacted by their experiences. However, their resiliency is truly inspiring."
The eldest sister is now in university, the sister who shared a room with Jeffrey and much of the same neglect and mistreatment is a "kind, gentle and courageous" girl in high school hoping to go to college and Jeffrey's younger brother is a "bright, humorous and strong-willed," boy who also dreams of going to college, Kristjanson said.
Bottineau rolled her eyes during at least one of the references to the children's traumatic early lives.
The inquest is being held 11 years after Jeffrey's death because Bottineau only exhausted all of her appeals last year.
Before Bottineau began her testimony, coroner's counsel Jill Witkin reminded her that she was not allowed to undermine the findings of fact the courts made in convicting her. Despite not being allowed to go into those details, Bottineau took the opportunity to once more proclaim her innocence.
Jeffrey was chronically starved and he died because Bottineau failed to give him the necessary food and medical treatment, Witkin said.
"I disagree," said Bottineau, shaking her head.
The short, stout woman with long grey hair dyed maroon and wearing a flowery T-shirt was brought from Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont., for her testimony, which is expected to last two days.
Bottineau requested standing about halfway through the inquest, which began in September, and coroner Peter Clark ruled that standing must be given to anyone with a "direct and substantial interest" in an inquest.
The family's caseworker has testified that she had no concerns about Bottineau, who she thought was a reliable pillar of support when compared to Jeffrey's often-volatile teenage parents, so she never conducted any records checks on her or Kidman.
Pattern of abuse
Had those checks been done, workers would have found a disturbing history of child abuse.
After Bottineau's first baby died of pneumonia in 1969 doctors found multiple untreated fractures and she was convicted of assault causing bodily harm.
Two different psychological evaluations cast major doubts on Bottineau's ability to care for children.
Bottineau then had two more children, who were made Crown wards following a severe beating by Kidman that landed them in hospital. He was convicted of two counts of assault causing bodily harm.
Those two children later alleged horrific abuse and neglect, including being tied to their beds and locked in dog crates.
After those two kids were removed from the home, the Catholic Children's Aid Society supervised Bottineau's care of her and Kidman's three daughters for a time.
There were records of abuse investigations in the following years, including allegations made about some children Bottineau cared for as a foster "day mom."
Meanwhile, city of Toronto workers planned Wednesday to replace a tree planted in Jeffrey's memory in Greenwood Park that was recently vandalized. A bench that was part of the memorial for Jeffrey was also to be returned to the park after being refurbished.
The CCAS has implemented many changes since Jeffrey's death, including various iterations of record-keeping systems, but a CCAS manager has testified that gaps still remain.
The coroner's inquest is not looking to assign blame, but rather is exploring systemic issues surrounding Jeffrey's death. The jury can make recommendations aimed at preventing such situations in the future.