British Columbia

Ministry abused authority in case of B.C. father sexually abusing his children: judge

A B.C. Supreme Court judge said that the province's child protection service abused its authority in a case involving the physical and sexual abuse of children, which ultimately allowed a father to molest his child while the toddler was in the ministry's care.

1st Canadian case where child protection agency is liable for misfeasance, says lawyer

The family members can't be identified to protect the children, three of whom a B.C. Supreme Court justice determined were sexually abused by their father. (CBC)

A B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled the province's child protection service abused its authority in a case involving the physical and sexual abuse of children, which ultimately allowed a father to molest his child while the toddler was in the ministry's care.

In a scathing 341-page judgement released Tuesday, Justice Paul Walker labelled the failure as 'egregious,' negligent and a breach of duty and said some social workers showed a "reckless disregard for their obligation to protect children."

The mother's lawyer, Jack Hittrich, says the case could result in a payout of millions of dollars in damages and legal costs to the children and the mother.

He says the mother was valiantly trying to get the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development to acknowledge and act on evidence that the father had physically and sexually abused at least three of the couple's four children.

The mother, who can only be identified as JP, was disbelieved and rebuffed and also wrongfully labelled as unstable by authorities, said Hittrich.

"This is the very first case in Canadian history where a mother has succeeded in holding a child protection agency liable for misfeasance in public office," he said.

'Baseless attempt to discredit mother'

Tuesday's judgement flows from an earlier decision by Justice Walker in June 2012, which was part one of the case, and related to the mother's bid to obtain permanent custody of her children.

At that time, Justice Walker ruled that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that three of the former couple's children had been sexually and physically abused by their father and that a Vancouver police investigation into the case was flawed.

The couple separated about four years prior, in October 2009, when the father, called BG in the court documents, was charged with uttering death threats. He was eventually removed from the family home for assaulting JP and the couple's eldest daughter.

Soon after, the mother became alarmed by evidence that at least three of her other children had been sexually abused by BG.

In December 2009 Justice Walker ordered that the father only be allowed supervised access to the children. But the ministry ignored that and seized the children from the mother after the father and his close friends made repeated calls raising concerns about her mental capacity.

The ministry then allowed the father to have unsupervised access to the children — which then allowed the father to sexually abuse the fourth and youngest child, Walker wrote in Tuesday's judgement.

That child is still suffering as a result, said Hittrich. "Clearly she was sexually abused while in care, and but for the ministry's actions that wouldn't have happened."

"When mom was frantically trying to convince the ministry that the sexual abuse allegations were real, they basically labelled her as crazy. And the more she protested, the more she was labelled as being crazy," Hittrich told CBC.

"If someone actually gave me this as a script, a Hollywood script, I would probably say this is a very entertaining script but ultimately not very believable."

In his 2012 ruling, Justice Walker deemed the father's allegations "a baseless attempt to discredit her."

He also said the investigating Vancouver police officer wrongly sided against the mother in determining there was no basis for the sexual abuse allegations. He added the officer appeared "enamoured" with the father.

In Tuesday's ruling the judge found the province was negligent and breached its fiduciary duty to the mother and the children, and misfeasance was proven.

"I have determined that the director and certain ministry social workers acted well outside of their statutory mandate and the duty to protect children," he wrote.

The wrongful conduct "ranges from intentional misconduct, bad faith, reckless disregard for their obligation to protect children ... to unreasonably supporting the ... the children's father even if it meant he sexually abused them," he wrote.

'Herculean efforts' of the mother

"If it were not for the Herculean efforts of [the mother], the children would now, through the fault of the director of children and families, be in the custody of their father who sexually and physically abused them," Walker said.

Justice Walker found that because ministry employees had acted in bad faith, immunity from liability under the Child, Family and Community Service Act does not apply.

The judge found that ministry employee William Strickland misled the police and colleagues to make them believe that the mother was malicious and suffering from mental health issues, which led to her assertions being disregarded by authorities, including the Vancouver Police Department.

Just the same, the judge said that the failure to protect the children from harm is not attributed solely to a single employee. The ministry "had many opportunities to carry out a proper assessment and investigation of the reports of sexual abuse," he wrote.

Ministry employees "approached the case ... with a closed mind, having concluded at a very early stage, before the children were interviewed that there was no merit to the sexual abuse allegations, and that JP had fabricated them and had coached her children to make their disclosures," he wrote.

The B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development issued a statement Tuesday saying it was too early for it to respond.

"This is a very lengthy decision that we will need time to review. Once that review is completed we will consider next steps," the ministry's media relations manager Sheldon Johnson said in an email.

With files from Paisley Woodward