Wettlaufer inquiry begins with investigators promising families input priority

Lead investigators tasked with running a public inquiry looking at how former nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer was able to kill eight seniors in her care outlined the scope of the task, promising that interviews with family members will happen immediately with community meetings to be held in October.

2-year-long inquiry will look at gaps that allowed Wettlaufer to kill seniors in her care

Lead counsel William McDowell and senior counsel Elizabeth Hewitt speak publicly for the first time since the inquiry was launched Aug. 01, 2017 (Andrew Lupton/ CBC News )

Lead investigators tasked with running a public inquiry looking at how former nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer was able to kill eight seniors in her care outlined the scope of the task, promising that interviews with family members will happen immediately with community meetings to be held in October.  

Led by Ontario Justice Eileen Gileese, the inquiry is slated to last two years. Its work has already begun said lead counsel William McDowell at a news conference in London, on Thursday.

Gillese, who served 15 years on the Ontario Court of Appeal, has been tapped to report on how Wettlaufer, 50, was able to carry out her crimes over almost a decade. She will also examine gaps in the system that allowed Wettlaufer to continue working despite workplace problems that emerged shortly after she started her nursing career in the 1990s. 

"This investigation is really horrific at its core and we have to make sure it never happens again," said McDowell.

The inquiry will aim to investigate the factual circumstances surrounding the deaths of eight seniors, as well as to examine policy and legislative frameworks that may have allowed the former nurse to repeatedly commit murder in long-term care homes. 

Gillese wasn't at Thursday's news conference, because she's wrapping up her work as an Ontario Court of Appeal judge. 

Instead McDowell and senior counsel Elizabeth Hewitt walked reporters through how the inquiry will unfold.

They described the it as an impartial, fact-finding operation than can recommend changes to government policy and procedures with an eye to preventing similar killings from happening again. Its purpose, said McDowell, is not to make findings of civil or criminal liability.

He was asked if Wettlaufer herself will be asked to testify. McDowell said it's possible but too early say.

Implementing any recommendations will be up to the government of the day. 

​Wettlaufer pleaded guilty in a Woodstock, Ont., court in June to 14 charges, including first-degree murder, attempted murder and aggravated assault in the deaths of eight seniors at care homes in southwestern Ontario.

At her trial, the court heard how she carried out the killings by administering massive doses of insulin to her victims.
Elizabeth Wettlaufer was able to keep working as a nurse despite problems flagged early in her career surrounding the use of medication. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Her crimes only came to light after she admitted to them, first to a doctor at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and then to police.

Justice Eileen Gillese will have two years to make recommendations on the circumstances and systemic issues that allowed nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer to kill eight nursing home residents in her care. (Wadham College/Twitter)

In 1995, Wettlaufer was fired from the hospital where she was working because she took the medication Lorazepam and was found dazed and disoriented at work. 

In 2014, she was fired from Caressant Care in Woodstock for giving insulin to the wrong patient. Despite this, she was able to get hired again, this time at Meadow Park in London, where she killed Arpad Horvath.

Horvath's daughter Susan attended today's news conference. 

She's hopeful the inquiry can pinpoint what when wrong and improve safety for seniors in care.  

"We've been through a lot right now," she said, fighting back tears. "I think everybody is still looking for the answers and once we have the answers, until then, I don't think a lot of people will take this serious."

The inquiry will begin by meeting with family members of victims. Then a series of community meetings will be held in the fall to outline the process to the public. Next will come hearings to determine who will have standing, which is the ability to testify. 

The inquiry is expected to report its findings in June 2019.

McDowell said it will be held at a venue, likely a courthouse, yet to be confirmed in the Woodstock/London area. 

He said it's premature to estimate how much the inquiry will cost. 

He said speaking to Horvath after the news conference put a human face on the importance of the inquiry's work. 

"This, I think, has been a wrenching experience for them and it will be a difficult experience for them to hear the evidence in the inquiry."

The scope of the inquiry is already the subject of debate. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wants Gillese to take a wide view and look at systemic problems in long-term care, including wait lists, program funding and staffing levels. 

The Ontario Progressive Conservatives have said the probe will take too long.

Probes always demanding, lawyer says

Richard McLaren, a Western University law professor who led an investigation into doping by Russian athletes, said leading such a probe can be a gruelling, demanding task.

"Even though you have lots of people working for you, you are still the leader and you carry the brunt of the criticism and you have to make sure things move in the right direction. I know she is up for it."

He said the two-year timeline is reasonable, given the complexity of the inquiry.

Information about the inquiry will be posted on this website.