Province will review shocking child neglect case, minister says

The Liberal government is promising to publicly release the results of an internal investigation into a shocking case of child neglect.

Minister Stephen Horsman says he only learned of Saint John case through media reports

Although there have been news reports about the five Saint John-area children neglected by their parents, Stephen Horsman, the minister of social development, says he just learned of the case this week. (CBC)

The Brian Gallant government is promising to publicly release the results of an internal investigation into a shocking case of child neglect.

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman said at a hastily called news conference Thursday that his department will also co-operate with any review by the province's child and youth advocate.

"My department will fully co-operate by providing any information that office requires," Horsman said, hours after initially refusing to speak to reporters about the case.

He said one focus of the internal review will be why he only learned of the case this week from media reports, rather than from his own departmental officials.

"I need to be briefed better," he said.

Progressive Conservative MLA Dorothy Shephard responded on Twitter, "Guess I should have sent the Minister a copy of the commentary I wrote in December referring to this case." She added the hashtag "So angry."

She later tweeted, "I have tried to give this Minister the benefit of the doubt. No more. He needs to resign!"

The parents of the five Saint John-area children pleaded guilty last year to five counts of failing to provide the children with the necessaries of life, thereby committing child endangerment.

MLA sees swing to parents' rights

Sheriff's deputies acting on an eviction order in May 2016 found the five children, aged seven months to 10 years old, smeared with human feces, malnourished and with rotting teeth in a filthy house strewn with garbage.

The Department of Social Development had been involved with the family since 2012.

In an interview, Shephard said the case shows that the Department of Social Development is waiting too long to make decisions in the best interest of the child, something she has raised concerns about since 2015.

"We seem to have let the pendulum swing so far towards parental rights that we are forgetting that parents can fail," she said. "And nobody wants to think of parents failing, but it's obvious that they are, and they can," she said.

"So I want to understand why we can't change the circumstances for the children, when we know that they're in a losing battle." 

Minister pledges to make review public

A hush fell over the legislature during question period on Thursday morning as Horsman fielded questions about the case.

"We should be upset, Mr. Speaker," he said. "I am upset, probably the most of anybody in this province. First thing this morning, I asked the department to conduct an investigation into this. We'll see what happened and why."

It's unacceptable that the minister is not taking responsibility for this failure of his department in this case, when we have this history in New Brunswick of chronic neglect of children.- David Coon

​Horsman didn't say during question period whether the review would be made public.

Instead he suggested the public had a role to play in watching out for such cases.

"All children have the right to a life free of abuse and neglect, and all members of our society have a role to play in protecting vulnerable children by reporting all cases of suspected abuse and neglect of children," he said.

After Horsman initially refused to speak to reporters, his department called a news conference on short notice later in the day, where the minister promised to release the results of the internal review.

"I will ensure that the results of this review will be made public," he said.

Norm Bosse, the child and youth advocate, says he will investigate the case. (CBC)

Child and youth advocate Norm Bosse confirmed Thursday he will investigate the case but said he was surprised Horsman had made it public that he was requesting the case file. He said those requests are normally treated confidentially.

Asked if anyone in his department had been fired over the case, Horsman said, "Not that I'm aware of."

Few answers 

The sentencing hearing Wednesday was told that Social Development opened a child protection file on the family about seven months before the sheriffs found the children and called police and the department.

Home assessments were conducted by the department and a social worker had been in the family's house just two months before the eviction order, court was told. The mother's defence lawyer said monthly visits that were supposed to happen did not take place.

Children's handprints are mixed with feces on a wall in the house that was the subject of the neglect case. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

Horsman was vague on what the criteria are for removing children from the parental home.

"Nothing's black and white," he said. "If it's the safety of the children we will act immediately."

The children are now in foster care. Their parents will be sentenced April 18.

Horsman said he is briefed weekly on major issues in the department by his deputy minister, but this case had not come up.

Coon calls for public inquiry 

Green Party Leader David Coon said Thursday there should be a public inquiry into the case, perhaps by an all-party committee of MLAs.

"We need to air this in public," he said. "We need to call witnesses."

Horsman told the legislature that the key focus of the internal review would be "to ensure that situations such as this one, described in court, do not happen again."

Coon noted it's been a decade since the publication of "Juli-Ann's Story," a groundbreaking report on child neglect by then-child and youth advocate Bernard Richard. The case he investigated followed other high-profile cases of children dying from neglect.

"Clearly, the recommendations that were made have not been doing the job they were intended to do, or are not being implemented as they were intended to," Coon said.

"It's unacceptable that the minister is not taking responsibility for this failure of his department in this case, when we have this history in New Brunswick of chronic neglect of children."

Horsman told the legislature that "over the last decade, significant changes have been made to our child protection system and we are committed to continuous improvements."

Last year, Horsman boasted about the province's record to CBC News.

"New Brunswick is probably leading the country in a lot of the policies that protect children. They're looking to New Brunswick. We think we're doing the best at this point and we'll continue to enhance it."