Opinion

In no universe is it appropriate for a child murderer to serve her sentence in a healing lodge: Robyn Urback

We need to trust that our corrections system will properly punish the perpetrators of the most grotesque acts. The recent decision to transfer child killer Terri-Lynne McClintic from prison to an Indigenous healing lodge undermines that trust and betrays a fundamental principle of justice: that it not just be done but seen to be done.

Moving Terri-Lynne McClintic, killer of 8-year-old Tori Stafford, from prison undermines public trust

Terri-Lynne McClintic and her boyfriend, Michael Rafferty, were both convicted of first-degree murder in the 2009 kidnapping death of Tori Stafford. (Canadian Press)

WARNING: This column contains graphic descriptions of violence

It's funny how the mind recalls the most mundane details about the most horrific crimes: the red shirt Terri-Lynne McClintic wore while accompanying police in the search for the body of Tori Stafford; how McClintic used the self-checkout to pay for the tools she'd use to destroy and dispose of the eight-year-old; how Tori's body was found with nothing on but a Hannah Montana T-shirt.

Eight-year-olds don't really wear Hannah Montana shirts anymore, but not so much time has passed that the name isn't recognizable. You can still buy the shirts at Walmart. The show's series finale aired in January 2011, about a year-and-a-half after the Woodstock, Ont., girl was found in the T-shirt, without pants or underwear — three months after she was abducted, raped and murdered.

Had Tori lived, she still wouldn't be old enough to legally drink after a Miley Cyrus concert. But Correctional Services has decided that enough time has passed to move one of her murderers into an immersive rehabilitation program.

Victoria (Tori) Stafford disappeared after leaving her elementary school in Woodstock, Ont., on April 8, 2009. Her partially clothed remains were found more than three months later. (Canadian Press)

McClintic pleaded guilty in 2010 to first-degree murder in the 2009 kidnapping death of Tori Stafford, and two years later, her boyfriend, Michael Rafferty, was convicted of first-degree murder, sexual assault causing bodily harm and kidnapping.

Both were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.

McClintic spent the initial part of her sentence in a maximum security prison (she pleaded guilty in 2012 to assaulting a fellow inmate at that prison and had six months added to her sentence, to be served concurrently) and was later classified as a medium-security prisoner.

Now, McClintic has moved to a healing lodge in Saskatchewan for female Indigenous offenders, where she enjoys greater independence, more spacious surroundings and programs designed to help her outline "what she needs emotionally, physically and spiritually to help with her rehabilitation," according to a description of the lodge's mandate on the Correctional Service Canada website.

Ideally, rehabilitation would be at the core of the Canadian justice system as the universal standard. We know that prisons that focus on rehabilitation generally mean lower rates of recidivism and cost taxpayers less in the long run. But immersive rehabilitation programs in Canada are the exception, not the rule.

The Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge where McClintic lives has just 30 beds. One of them is occupied by someone who participated in the rape and murder of a child, just about the worst thing — if not the worst thing — a human can do.  

McClintic's troubled childhood

McClintic's story is one of institutional failure: she was born to a woman who worked as a stripper, adopted out to another woman who also worked as a stripper, and was in and out of foster care. As a child, McClintic was angry. She dropped out of school. Did drugs. Microwaved a live dog. She was abused. And then she grew up and remained free long enough to repeat the cycle.

Moving McClintic out of prison and into a healing lodge is institutional failure of another kind. While there is perhaps a case to be made that even the most monstrous offenders — those with the most hopeless-seeming cases — deserve a shot at rehabilitation, surely the pedophiles and child murderers, the worst of the worst, ought to be at the back of the line. Not moving into healing lodges a mere eight years after abducting and killing an eight-year-old girl and dumping her body in a field.

There's a Karla Homolka-like quality to McClintic's punishment in that both women appeared to get off relatively easily compared to the magnitude of their crimes. That's not the only parallel: both were initially perceived as passive accomplices, yielding to the whims of their deranged and violent partners. It wasn't until later that the extent of their involvement was known.

McClintic initially told police that it was Rafferty who used a hammer to kill Tori. She later changed her story. (Facebook)

McClintic, who initially said it was her boyfriend who killed Tori, testified during his trial that it was she who wielded the fatal hammer blows to Tori's head (granted, there is reason to be skeptical since McClintic had been convicted at the time whereas Rafferty had not). She also described ignoring Tori's pleas to "make him stop" and waiting outside her boyfriend's car, listening to the Grade 3 student scream as she was being raped.

How do you rehabilitate that degree of evil? In what universe should the perpetrator be transferred to a healing lodge less than 10 years into her life sentence?

In that time, however, Correctional Services has deemed McClintic worthy of such a transfer. We don't know what — if any — changes in her behaviour prompted the move (officials will not comment on the specifics of her case), but even if McClintic has technically met the requirements of getting a bed at the facility, the decision undermines a pillar of the justice system —that justice not only be done but be seen to be done, especially in cases that resonate so widely and profoundly.

The whole country looked for Tori in the months between her disappearance and the discovery of her body. We peered at the security footage recorded outside Oliver Stephens Public School. We remember her Hannah Montana shirt. We need to trust that our corrections system will properly punish the perpetrators of the most grotesque acts. We need to see that justice is being done.

There is no objective threshold to determine what constitutes "adequate" prison time for someone who lures and murders an eight-year-old. Many would consider a lifetime behind bars as too lenient of a punishment. But without question, it should be long enough for that little girl's shirt to become thoroughly outdated.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Robyn Urback

Columnist

Robyn Urback is an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: