New Brunswick

After shocking case of neglect, province's entire child-protection system under review

The Department of Social Development has placed the province's entire child protection system under review, after five children were left smeared in feces in a filthy home with nothing to eat.

Parents sentenced to 2 years in prison for failing to provide necessaries of life to 5 children

The court heard the five children are now living with their grandmother and thriving. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

The Department of Social Development has placed the province's entire child protection system under review, after five children were left smeared in feces in a filthy home with nothing to eat.

Provincial court Judge Marco Cloutier sentenced the children's parents to two years in prison on Wednesday, after they pleaded guilty to failing to provide the necessities of life.

"What should have been a den of safety and retreat for those children became only walls surrounded by filth and waste," Cloutier wrote in his decision.

But questions remain about why the children weren't taken from the home sooner and what could have happened if they continued to live in squalor.

The family had been involved with the Department of Social Development since 2012, and social services workers were supposed to be making monthly visits.

Yet the neglect wasn't discovered until sheriffs visited the home in 2016 to evict the family and were shocked by what they found.

Stephen Horsman, the minister of social development, announced a review of the Saint John neglect case in February but expanded the scope on Wednesday. (CBC)

Social Development should have acted sooner, according to lawyer Joel Hansen, who represented the father.

"I'm not excusing what happened, what they did," Hansen said.

"But boy oh boy, social services missed that one."

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman announced a review of the case in February and promised it would be made public. Horsman said he only learned about the case through the media.

The review has now been broadened to look at the entire child protection system, Department of Social Development spokesperson Anne Mooers said in an emailed statement to CBC News on Wednesday.

"Staff members at Social Development are working with the Child and Youth Advocate as part of the review," Mooers wrote.

The department has also hired an expert who has done "similar reviews in other jurisdictions."

Community must take responsibility

Child and youth advocate Norm Bossé attended the child neglect sentencing and said he will also be looking into how the system may have failed the children. (Brian Chisholm/CBC)

Child and youth advocate Norm Bossé is also looking into how the system may have failed the children.

That will include examining why no one acted when the children frequently missed school.

"You've sent two people to jail for two years. Is that going to stop the abuse of kids in this province?" Bossé said.

"No, it won't. It takes the community to be wary of these things, to be watchful and to report what they see."

Parents cry

Inside courtroom number three, the parents cried as sheriffs led them into custody.

A publication ban prevents the parents and children from being identified.

In his sentencing decision, Cloutier outlined the harm done to the five children.

Two children had to repeat grades because they missed so much time at school. Some of the children required dental restoration, neglect described by the judge as "beyond words."

Cloutier sentenced the parents to two years in prison for each of the five counts of failing to provide the necessaries of life.

They will serve the time concurrently, along with two months for a mischief charge for damaging the rental home the family was living in.

The mother will also serve an additional 20 days in custody for three unrelated theft and probation violation charges.

'Almost inhuman' neglect

What sheriffs found in that home back in 2016 has been described as "almost inhuman."

It was filthy, strewn with garbage and food waste on the floor. Feces was smeared on the wall by tiny, child-sized handprints.

Only three items were in the family of seven's fridge: a small package of stew, a small cabbage and a small turnip. The children showed signs of food deprivation.

They [social services] claimed they visited through the winter. Well, if they did, they let 'er go.- Joel Hansen, lawyer

Some of the children weren't wearing clothes and were found with feces smeared on their face and chest.

A sentencing hearing revealed the children had never been to the dentist, even though their parents were entitled to free dental care. 

The only two children old enough to attend school missed a combined 180 days in one school year.

At least they're alive

The parents could have faced up to five years in prison for failing to provide the necessities of life.

Hansen suggested they will be eligible for parole at the earliest opportunity.

He said the mother was suffering from postpartum depression after she had five children very quickly.

Earlier in the court proceedings, Crown prosecutor Patrick Wilbur submitted photographs of children's handprints mixed with feces on walls in the family's home. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

After the family moved from rural New Brunswick into the city, they needed intervention from social services right away.

All you had to do was look at the children's teeth, Hansen said.

"They [social services] claimed they visited through the winter," he said. "Well, if they did, they let 'er go."

The five children are now living with a grandmother and "doing very well," Hansen added. For them, "the pain is over."

Things could have been worse for the children, he said.

"At least they're alive."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca.

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