Toddler left in car seat in closet for 5 hours likely died 'trying to get out,' court hears

The twin brother of a Calgary toddler who died after being left alone in a car seat in a closet for five hours cried "gone, gone, gone" when he arrived at the hospital and the boy's parents worried he'd witnessed his sister's death, a court heard Monday.

Unlicensed Calgary day-care provider pleads guilty to criminal negligence in death of Ceira McGrath

Ceira Lynn McGrath died after being left in a car seat in a closet in 2015. Elmarie Simons, who was caring for the child, pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing death. (McGrath family)

The twin brother of a Calgary toddler who died after being left alone in a car seat in a closet for five hours cried "gone, gone, gone" when he arrived at the hospital and the boy's parents worried he'd witnessed his sister's death, a court heard Monday. 

Ceira McGrath was likely "trying to get out" when she became entangled in the straps, according to an agreed statement of facts read aloud at a sentencing hearing for Elmarie Simons, 59, an unlicensed day-care provider.

Last week, on what was supposed to be the first day of her trial in provincial court, Simons pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing death in the case of 18-month-old Ceira McGrath, who died of asphyxiation in November 2015.

Because they might have been called as witnesses at trial, Ceira's parents were never told the full story of what happened to their daughter, learning many of the agonizing details for the first time on Monday. 

Prosecutors Pam McCluskey and Samina Dhalla are seeking a four-year prison term, while defence lawyer Alain Hepner is asking for a two-year sentence. Judge Jim Ogle has reserved his decision.

Court must send message: Crown

A bleak, dark picture of the family's life after Ceira was outlined in three victim impact statements as the parents and grandparents of the toddler used words like despair, torture and misery to describe how their lives have been after the child's death. 

When she died, Ceira was a "frightened, alone, distressed, and helpless little girl," said her father, Ryan McGrath, in his victim impact statement. "We miss her so much it literally brings me to my knees."

"The court must send a message to all day-home providers," prosecutor Pam McCluskey told court.

"The message is this: if you undertake to provide care to children, you must actually pay attention to the children ... there are no shortcuts, you can not confine a child out of your sight while you do other things."

Ceira 'trying to get out'

Court heard this was not the first time Simons had strapped Ceira into a car seat and left her alone.

The car seat Ceira died in was so small the leg straps could not be fastened around the child. Only the chest buckle was done up when Simons left the girl for five hours to run errands at Walmart and McDonald's.

Simons's brother was home but never checked on the three children his sister was supposed to be caring for and did not know where in the home they were being kept, according to the agreed statement of facts.

Ceira was likely "trying to get out" when she slid down and became entangled in the straps. 

Though she lied to police numerous times, nine months after Ceira's death Simons admitted she had left the toddler in the car seat before. 

Elmarie Simons is expected to be sentenced next week in the toddler's death. (CTV Calgary)

Ceira and her twin brother — who was likely left in a playpen for most of the day — were dropped off at 7:15 a.m. by their father on Nov. 12, 2015.

Even though Simons had been asked not to allow the children a morning nap, she put the toddler in the baby seat around 8 a.m. MT and left to run errands. 

Around 1:30 p.m., Simons called 911 to report Ceira was unresponsive and unconscious. By the time EMS arrived, Ceira was dead.

Ceira's mother, Tanya Gladwell, described the moment she was called by police, picked up and rushed to hospital with the officer only relaying that there had been a "terrible accident."

'I knew Ceira was dead'

"When I arrived at the hospital and stepped out of the police car, there were several police there and what appeared to be a first responder; I knew Ceira was dead," said Gladwell. 

The shocked mother was taken to see her dead toddler.

When police brought Ceira's twin brother Colby to the hospital, he cried out, "Gone, gone, gone" over and over. 

"What did he see? What happened to Colby?" Gladwell said.

All the boy has is "two very messed up grieving parents," she said.

Simons lied 'to cover [her] butt'

Both parents described retreating from friends and family, isolating themselves, selling their dream home and struggling to survive their loss.

They said their happy memories of the twins as babies were stolen by Simons, because looking at photos of the children brings too much pain.

The parents said they weighed down with guilt for trusting Simons with their children. They were on a waiting list, but not yet able to get the twins into a licensed daycare. 

When Simons was asked about her initial lies to police, she said she didn't tell the truth "because it sounded so bad" and she "was trying to cover [her] butt."

'I am not the monster you think I am'

When given the chance to speak at the end of the hearing, Simons apologized to Ceira's family, telling them: "I am so sorry, but I know that doesn't cut it.

"Not a day goes by without me thinking of that little beautiful girl," she said. 

Simons called Ceira "a rainbow of a child" and told her victim's family, "I am not the monster you think I am."

"This is not about me, it's about the shattered lives which I caused, the anguish, the sorrow, the pain and depression for which I am responsible."

After hearing hours of sentencing submissions and victim impact statements, Ogle said it had been an "exceedingly difficult day and difficult case for everyone, including myself."

The judge said he needed time to consider his decision and will sentence Simons next week. 

"I know this case needs closure for all involved," he said.

About the Author

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary reporter

Meghan Grant is the courts and crime reporter for CBC Calgary.