Families of residents who died at CHSLD Herron skeptical of public inquiry

Dozens of elderly patients died of COVID-19 at CHSLD Herron in Dorval last spring, many of them alone and in horrific conditions. Surviving family members hope the inquiry will shed more light, but some are skeptical.

Coroner's public inquiry into deaths at long-term care homes begins Monday with focus on CHSLD Herron

Thirty-eight people died at CHSLD Herron last spring, many of them alone and in apalling conditions. (Radio-Canada)

On the eve of a public coroner's inquiry into long-term care deaths across the province last spring some relatives of those who died doubt the exercise will uncover much.

Starting on Monday, coroner Géhane Kamel will begin a series of travelling public hearings looking at a wave of deaths in long-term care homes between March 12 and May 1, 2020. The process is expected to last several months.

Next week's proceedings will focus exclusively on one of the hardest-hit homes: CHSLD Herron in Dorval.

At least 38 people from the privately run residence died during that fateful period last spring, including Barbara Schneider's mother, Mary.

"It's very painful for me because every time I think about it, I think about my mom, her last days there being left alone," Schneider told CBC in an interview this week.

Schneider said she still doesn't know the exact circumstances of her mother's death. And she's haunted by that fact.

Barbara Schneider is haunted by her mother's death at CHSLD Herron. Schneider doesn't think much new will be learned at the public inquiry, but hopes the coroners recommendations will prevent such tragedies in the future. (CBC news)

"I don't know how her last days were. I think of her screaming for me," she said.

Schneider said she doesn't think the inquiry will uncover anything that hasn't already come to light in news stories and parallel investigations. But she does hope some good might come from the recommendations in the coroner's final report.

"I hope this doesn't happen to other families, and I hope that the system will change," Schneider said. "I don't wish this on anybody, because I will live with this for the rest of my life."

Horrific conditions and an information vacuum

Much of what happened at CHSLD Herron is already known. The private residence was chronically understaffed, but once COVID-19 hit last March the situation quickly became critical

The owners were unable to find replacements for staff members who were sick, and many residents were left unattended amid appalling conditions. 

Family members were barred from visiting loved ones because of pandemic restrictions, and many said they were kept in the dark about what was happening inside.

WATCH | Surviving residents of CHSLD Herron, an emblem of the COVID-19 catastrophe in Quebec's long-term care system, are being moved out one by one.

Surviving residents of one of Quebec's hardest hit long-term care homes are moving out

1 year ago
Duration 3:19
CHSLD Herron became the symbol of the COVID-19 catastrophe that ravaged long-term care homes in Quebec. One by one, the surviving residents are being moved out.

Health-care workers described bedridden residents lying in sheets soiled with excrement all the way up to the neck because their adult diapers hadn't been changed. Some residents were dehydrated and hadn't been fed.

In other cases, food trays were left on the floor with plates untouched because residents with mobility issues couldn't reach them.

It wasn't until the local health authority intervened and placed CHSLD Herron under trusteeship that circumstances slowly began to improve.

Moira Davis' father, Stanley Pinnell, also died at CHSLD Herron. She still doesn't know how it happened and wonders if it was COVID-19 that killed him, or neglect.

Moira Davis' father died at CHSLD Herron. She doesn't believe the coroners inquiry can be truly independent. She would prefer to see a national inquiry looking at problems in long-term care homes across the country. (CBC News)

Davis said she has little faith in the inquiry's independence.

"I truly do not believe a Quebec-led inquiry is going to get to the heart of it," Davis told CBC in an interview this week.

"The system is broken, and if the Quebec government itself investigates itself, how much wrong are they going to find?" she asked.

Davis would like to see an even wider-ranging federal probe into long-term care homes across Canada.

"I want a national inquiry. And I want to have the opportunity, as probably tens of thousands of family members want across this country, to say how did it go so wrong?" she added. 

Police investigation and lawsuit also underway

Montreal police were also called in to investigate the deaths at CHSLD Herron. Sources have told Radio-Canada that police have completed their investigation and the file is now in the hands of prosecutors to determine if criminal charges are warranted.

Schneider is the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit launched against the home's owners, Gatineau-based Katasa Groupe + Développement, The suit has yet to be approved by the court. The next hearing in the suit is set for March.

About 30 people still live at CHSLD Herron, which is now being run by the regional health agency. It's set to close within a few months, and residents are gradually being relocated. (Radio-Canada)

Katasa announced in November it would close CHSLD Herron within six to 12 months. The local health agency has been running the home since last April.

About 30 people still live there. They'll be relocated to other facilities over the coming months.

Hearings will go on for weeks

The coroner's inquiry officially opens Monday at the Montreal courthouse, although much of the testimony will take place virtually. 

The first three days will focus on CHSLD Herron, with four more days of hearings on Herron planned for next month. 

Between now and June there will be other hearings focusing on homes in Terrebonne, Lévis, Longueuil, Shawinigan, and Laval.

Kamel will hear from witnesses to try to determine the precise circumstances and causes of the deaths.  And she will come up with recommendations aimed at preventing such tragedies in future.

Members of the public will be able to follow the hearings online. A spokesperson for the coroners office said details on how to do so along with a list of witnesses would be released later today or tomorrow on its website.


Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

With files from Radio-Canada's David Gentile and David Boily

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