Convicted killer Elizabeth Wettlaufer's nursing licence revoked for 'egregious' misconduct
While the decision was a formality, hearing provided some details about Wettlaufer's career
Elizabeth Wettlaufer, convicted killer of eight nursing home residents under her care, committed "egregious" professional misconduct and had her nursing licence revoked Tuesday as a consequence by the College of Nurses of Ontario.
The unsurprising decision was made in Toronto by a five-person panel consisting of three nurses and two members of the public. The long-awaited disciplinary hearing revealed details about Wettlaufer's history with the college, including how her nursing career got off to a rocky start more than 20 years ago.
At Tuesday's hearing, the college alleged Wettlaufer engaged in professional misconduct when she intentionally overdosed residents with insulin in order to kill them. Lawyer Megan Shortreed, representing the college, promised in opening remarks that the evidence against Wettlaufer would be "overwhelming and obvious."
"This is an unprecedented case," she said. "It is difficult to contemplate a case of greater seriousness."
Wettlaufer was notified of the hearing but she was not in attendance. A chair at a table with her name on a place card sat empty.
Wettlaufer, 50, was sentenced last month to spend life behind bars with no chance of parole for 25 years. She pleaded guilty to eight counts of murder, four counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault. The murders were committed at nursing homes in London and Woodstock in southwestern Ontario.
'Shame upon the profession'
She carried out the crimes over the course of almost a decade, beginning in 2007, and they only came to light last fall when she admitted to them, first to a doctor at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and then to police. Wettlaufer had checked herself into CAMH in mid-September.
On Sept. 30, she phoned the college, admitted what she had done, and resigned her licence. She told an investigator she would never again practice nursing.
Despite Wettlaufer's admissions and resignation, the college still had to proceed with the disciplinary hearing to officially revoke her licence. The proceedings were put on hold until her criminal case was wrapped up.
Shortreed largely relied on the agreed statement of facts from Wettlaufer's criminal court case to prove the professional misconduct as well as an affidavit from the college investigator who spoke to Wettlaufer.
When the panel chair, Grace Fox, delivered the finding that misconduct had been proven, she said Wettlaufer should not tarnish the "good name and good work of dedicated professionals."
"This is the most egregious example of abuse and disgraceful misconduct that this panel has ever considered," she said.
Fox, after announcing that Wettlaufer's licence with the college was revoked, said families place enormous trust in caregivers in long-term care homes.
Violated trust in 'horrific' way
"It is a privilege for members of this college to be the guardians of this public trust, and Ms. Wettlaufer violated this public trust in the most horrific way possible," Fox said.
Another lawyer for the college, who spoke to reporters after the decision, acknowledged today's hearing was largely a formality and that revoking Wettlaufer's licence likely has no practical effect given that Wettlaufer is expected to spend at least the next 25 years, if not the rest of her life, in prison.
But Linda Rothstein said the hearing was also meant to help restore public trust that's been shaken and show that the college believes members must be held accountable for their actions.
"We do want the public to know how horrified we are and how much this has shocked the conscience of this institution," said Rothstein.
The lawyers for the college defended how the regulatory body handled its interactions with Wettlaufer. New details about its history with her were revealed during the hearing that previously were kept confidential because of privacy stipulations in provincial legislation.
The panel heard that she registered with the college in 1995, but within a few months she was fired from the hospital where she was working because she took the medication Lorazepam and was found dazed and disoriented at work. She was hospitalized as a result.
The college was notified of this and conducted an investigation. In 1996, Wettlaufer's nursing licence was put under restrictions but she was allowed to keep practising. The conditions included: remaining under the supervision of an addictions specialist and family doctor, attending group support meetings, urine tests, and remaining drug and alcohol-free.
Early trouble with licence
The college monitored Wettlaufer's compliance with these conditions for one year then lifted them, the panel heard, in May 1998.
The next time the college was involved with Wettlaufer was in 2014 when Caressant Care in Woodstock notified it that Wettlaufer was fired for making a medication error that put a patient at risk.
Shortreed said college staff inquired and talked to the director of nursing at Caressant Care, who indicated there were no underlying concerns with Wettlaufer and that she always took ownership of her mistakes. The college was also told that there was no sustained harm to residents because of Wettlaufer's mistakes.
The college then determined that no formal investigation was warranted and it instead advised Wettlaufer in writing that she was expected to comply with standards of practice.
Rothstein told reporters she thinks that the college came to "a fair conclusion" based on the information it had at the time.
Rothstein and another lawyer, Mark Sandler, said they are "comfortable" with how the college handled both of its interactions with Wettlaufer, in the 1990s and in 2014, but that now everything to do with Wettlaufer is being looked at with the benefit of hindsight.
They also said discussions about red flags and what could possibly have been done differently, or any changes that need to be made, are likely to come up at the public inquiry called by the province.
"If there are things we could have done differently, we will take those to heart," Sandler said.
Inquiry details in 'near future'
The province has yet to announce who will lead the inquiry, when it will start or what its precise terms will include.
Anthony Quinn, director of communications for CARP, an advocacy organization for older Canadians, told CBC he hopes the inquiry will delve into the "red flags" in Wettlaufer's career, and how the college handled them.
"The college should be telling us why they took so long to investigate. and what types of infractions are strong enough to make the college act and remove a nurse, to remove a licence, to fire them from their jobs," said Quinn. "How far do you have to go down the process to actually lose your job, so patients are protected?"
Jane Meadus, a lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly, said the inquiry should also address policies in nursing homes and their requirements when hiring nurses.
"How much change do we need in the system?" said Meadus.
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