Youth protection registry came too late for Shafia girls

The agency first alerted to troubles at the Montreal home of the murdered Shafia sisters admits lack of communication may have contributed to the failure to act.

The agency that first got wind of trouble in the Montreal home of the murdered Shafia sisters admits lack of communication between English and French agencies may have contributed to the failure of youth protection workers to act when the children sought help for a second time — just two months before the girls' deaths. 

Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, Montreal's English-language child protection agency, was the first to be alerted to trouble in the Shafia home in 2008, when the second oldest daughter, Sahar, complained to teachers at school. 

At the sensational first-degree murder trial of her parents, Mohammed Shafia, 58, and Tooba Yahya, 42, and brother Hamed, 21, the jury would hear that Sahar told authorities she wanted to kill herself and that Hamed had stabbed her in the arm with scissors.

"Immediately after we got called in, we went to the school," said Madeleine Bérard, Batshaw's director of youth protection. "We interviewed the child alone. We interviewed her parents, her brother, her sister. We interviewed teachers who were also involved in the case."

But Sahar recanted her story immediately, Bérard said. That left the agency with little legal alternative but to close the file.

Children called 911

During the murder trial held in Kingston, Ont., the jury heard that in April 2009, the children sought help a second time — calling 911 because they feared what their father would do when he learned that the eldest sister, Zainab, had fled the Shafia family home and sought refuge at a women's shelter.

On that occasion, the file was handled by Centre Jeunesse de Montreal, the French-language youth protection agency that oversees the majority of cases in Montreal. 

The agency was unaware that trouble in the Shafia household had been flagged a year earlier to Batshaw, because there was no system in place to allow agencies to share information such as prior alerts involving the same family.

A Quebec-wide registry to share complaints among all youth protection agencies was in the works, but it did not get up and running until May 2009 — one month after the second complaint and just weeks before the three Shafia sisters and their stepmother, Rona Amir Mohammed, 50, were found dead inside a car submerged in the Kingston Mills lock in eastern Ontario.

Had the provincial registry been in place in April 2008, "it might have helped," Bérard said, noting it would have let the second agency know to handle the file as a repeat issue — raising additional alarm bells for investigators.

"When you start to observe a pattern, then it makes you question. It makes you want to look a little further," Bédard said. "It gives you enough justification to dig further."

Siblings 'traumatized:' psychologist

Relatives are now caring for three Shafia children, but CBC News has learned the siblings are struggling. 

At least one of them is unwilling to believe his parents murdered his sisters and stepmother, and all of them appear to have been traumatized.

"All three of them have problems," said Khalid Ahmed, who is related to Yahya. "Especially the oldest girl. She has health problems, too."

In court documents, psychologist Dr. Nora Dembri described the younger girl as anguished and her older sister as tormented and confused, anxious to have contact with her parents whom she still considered "her only reliable source."

"To [the older girl], it doesn't make sense why people consider her parents to be monsters," Dembri testified in preliminary proceedings to the trial. "To her, they always tried to make sure the children were happy and that they had a ... a prosperous future."

The youngest Shafia brother is "absolutely sure that his family are innocent," Dembri said, adding the boy deeply regrets making a phone call to authorities, "because he thought that he's partly responsible for what was actually happening to the family, and especially to his parents."

Financial future on shaky ground

Questions also remain about the financial welfare of the surviving children.

Ahmed had managed Mohammed Shafia's business affairs, including the operation of a strip mall north of Montreal, which the businessman who was born in Afghanistan bought for about $1.6 million.

"He would often call me, only to ask about his money," Ahmed told CBC News. "Not once did he ask about the health of his kids."

Ahmed said just this week Shafia transferred control of some of his assets to his younger son, now 18 and a high-school dropout.


  • This story has been changed from a previously published version.
    Jan 02, 2012 5:20 PM ET