Toronto

'My heart cries out': Son of Wettlaufer victim says province failed to make long-term care safer

The son of one of nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer's victims says lives in long-term care homes could have been saved during the COVID-19 pandemic, if Ontario had acted on recommendations from the public inquiry into the serial killer's crimes.

Public inquiry recommendations could have saved victims of COVID-19, Daniel Silcox says

James Silcox, a Second World War veteran suffering from Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, was killed by Wettlaufer in 2007. (Submitted by Silcox family)

Every time Daniel Silcox turns on the news these days, it's like losing his father all over again.

"Those poor souls in those long-term facilities should be protected. They've been vulnerable from day one and they're dying and my heart cries out to their families," Silcox said of the hundreds of people who've contracted COVID-19 in Ontario's long-term care homes. 

Silcox's father James, an 84-year-old war veteran, was one of the first victims of Elizabeth Wettlaufer, the nurse convicted of killing or injuring 16 seniors in long-term care facilities. He died in August 2007 when Wettlaufer injected him with insulin at the Caressant Care Home in Woodstock, Ont.

Wettlaufer is serving a life sentence handed down in 2017 for giving her victims massive doses of insulin to satisfy what she called her "red surge" to kill.

For more than a decade, the serial killer manipulated shortcomings in Ontario's long-term care system to prey on the elderly.

Elizabeth Wettlaufer is escorted by police from the courthouse in Woodstock, Ont, Monday, June 26, 2017, the day she was sentenced to life in prison for murdering eight seniors in her care. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

The subsequent inquiry into the safety and security of people in the province's long-term care system made recommendations that might have saved lives, Silcox says, had they been implemented before the COVID-19 pandemic raged through those facilities.

As of Thursday, more than 930 long-term care residents in the province have been infected with the novel coronavirus and 162 have died after contracting COVID-19. 

"It's just, just out of control. There was no need for this, no need whatsoever. If we had our priorities right, we would have protected these poor souls a long time ago," he told CBC News. 

'Absolutely disgraceful'

The inquiry, which issued its final report in July of 2019, identified underfunding by the provincial government, understaffing, and in Wettlaufer's case, her ability to find work with staffing agencies that sent her from care home to care home where she continued her attacks.

Now, as COVID-19 ravages residents in more than 100 care homes in Ontario, those same problems remain. 

Daniel Silcox's, son of James Silcox, says his heart 'cries out' for those who have died of COVID-19 in Ontario's long-term care homes.

It's believed many of the victims were infected by staff who continue to work in multiple care homes in to make a living.

"They are overworked, underpaid, exhausted and they have to take on two or three different jobs to make a living and perhaps transmitting this virus from one home to another," said Silcox.

"That's absolutely disgraceful. Absolutely disgraceful," he said.

On Wednesday, Premier Doug Ford placed an emergency ban on personal-care staff working in multiple facilities, but it doesn't kick in until next week. It also doesn't cover personal support workers (PSW) hired through agencies.

He also earmarked $243 million to test staff and residents at long-term care homes for COVID-19.

'A forgotten pillar of the system'

Toronto lawyer Alex Van Kralingen represented several families victimized by Wettlaufer at the public inquiry.   

He agrees the same vulnerabilities that allowed Wettlaufer to attack elderly patients are still a concern.

"Here it's a different kind of safety issue, but I think that the solution is actually quite comparable," he said, referring to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

"If you look at the various pillars of our health-care system, this pillar, the long-term care sector, is frequently an underfunded and quite frankly, a forgotten pillar of the system," said Van Kralingen.

"Much of the challenges we find ourselves in right now are a result of the structural underfunding of the entire system for decades." 

He says several recommendations from the inquiry would have helped protect long-term care patients from the pandemic.

"You need to improve the staffing levels; you need to improve the amount of funding going to homes for those front-line staff. It's the only way we're going to keep older Canadians safe."

The inquiry also recommended that the province should:

  • Create new, permanent funding for staffing at long-term care facilities.
  • Refine its performance assessment program for long-term care facilities to better identify those struggling to provide a safe and secure environment.
  • Conduct a study to determine adequate levels of registered nursing staff in long-term care facilities and table the findings by July 31, 2020.

The province acted on some but not all of the staffing and funding recommendations.

In February, for example, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care announced the staff study would go ahead, but it wouldn't be completed until late 2020.

"The sector is experiencing a severe shortage of personal support workers and other key roles, and that's why our government is taking action to help Ontarians fill these fulfilling, in-demand jobs," acknowledged Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton at the time. 

But Silcox says the system still needs massive changes.

"In terms of the long-term care file, it does appear to the rank and file, they dropped the ball badly," he said.

"Losing Dad, our own real hope was that he would somehow contribute to the improvement of the long-term health system, and that would be his legacy," he added.

"Now with COVID bashing through the system, my heart now goes out to the people who have lost their lives, the people who lost their husbands, wives, their fathers, their mothers. That's going to be their legacy."

About the Author

John Lancaster

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

John Lancaster is a senior reporter with CBC News focusing on investigative and enterprise journalism. His stories have taken him across Canada, the US and the Caribbean. His reports have appeared on CBC Toronto, The National, CBC's Marketplace, The Fifth Estate-and of course CBC online and radio. Drop him a line anytime at john.lancaster@cbc.ca.

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