Cross Country Checkup

'Who was advocating for my dad?' Daughter of Wettlaufer victim speaks out for first time

Joanne Birtch, speaking about her father James Silcox's death publicly for the first time, hopes the public inquiry into Elizabeth Wettlaufer will shed light on the circumstances leading up to the eight murders in a nursing home.

Joanne Birtch hopes public inquiry into serial murders will shed light on killer’s circumstances

James Lancing Silcox is seen in this photo provided by his family. (Submitted by Silcox family)
Listen6:58

Joanne Birtch is trying to make sense of her father's death.

James Silcox was Elizabeth Wettlaufer's first victim at Caressant Care long-term care home in Woodstock, Ont. Birtch hopes to one day understand how the so-called "Killer Nurse" was able to murder eight nursing home residents over a seven-year period.

"I've been disgusted, let's say, by the way that Wettlaufer was being represented and that the union was advocating for her," she told Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue.

"But who was advocating for my dad and for all those other people?"

A public inquiry into Wettlaufer's killing of eight nursing home residents began earlier this month in St. Thomas, Ont.

On Sunday, Checkup asked Canadians if quality of care in Canada's long-term care facilities is adequate.

Elizabeth Wettlaufer is escorted from the courthouse in Woodstock, Ont., on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

The inquiry heard that Wettlaufer was able to get away with the crimes because red flags were swept "under the table."

Even though Carressant Care had knowledge of prior transgressions, including medication errors and patient abuse, the care home did not fire her because grievances were filed by the Ontario Nurses Association, which was representing Wettlaufer.

"If people knew that these kinds of things were occurring, why didn't anybody do anything about it and why didn't anybody care enough?" asked Birtch.

Warning signs at Caressant

Silcox died in August 2007 when Wettlaufer injected the 84-year-old man with insulin, which led to his death.

Until 2016, the death was considered unexpected, but not labelled suspicious.

"He was a very ill man. He had severe Alzheimer's and became psychotic from time to time," Birtch, 63, said.

Nine years after his death, Birtch discovered her father was part of a police investigation.

"It was a shock," she said. "You never imagine that something like this will touch your family."

There were warning signs.

Birtch and her sister Dianne Crawford, a registered nurse, were unhappy with the care her father received shortly after he moved into Caressant Care.

We need leadership and that leadership has to say that these people deserve respect and proper care.- Joanne Birtch

During a visit, Crawford noticed that her father's foot seemed to be positioned wrong. The facility offered no explanation, except to say an X-ray cart would arrive later in the week.

But Birtch and her sister were worried, and took their father to Woodstock General Hospital.

It turned out Silcox had a broken hip. Nurses at the hospital also said Silcox hadn't been cleaned properly at Caressant Care, Birtch said.

'They passed the trash'

Because of the attention brought by the public inqury, Birtch has decided to speak about her father's death for the first time.

"This is the thing that I really want to know from the inquiry: what was going on prior to August 17 [2007] when my dad passed away?

"What did [Caressant Care] know?" she wondered.

As details from the inquiry emerge, Birtch believes Caressant Care and the nurses' union helped create the conditions that allowed Wettlaufer to get away with her crimes.

Caressant Care is the nursing home in Woodstock, Ont., where serial killer Elizabeth Wettlaufer, committed seven of eight murders. (Dave Chidley/Canadian Press)

Eventually, the care home offered Wettlaufer a $2,000 settlement and reference letter to end her employment.

"They passed the trash, is essentially what they did, at Caressant Care because they just paid her off," she said.

"And, yes, the union is at fault as well because they didn't bother to look into her past and make sure that she was, in fact, a good nurse."

While many Checkup callers expressed concern that long-term care homes are understaffed — and care workers are overworked and underqualified — Birtch believes the issue goes beyond resources.

"What we need is proper leadership," she said.

"Money is important, but we need leadership and that leadership has to say that these people deserve respect and proper care."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Kate Dubinski.