WARNING: This story contains details that readers may find disturbing
A report on a horrific child-neglect case has laid bare the filth, squalor and mistreatment suffered by five young children – and how New Brunswick authorities repeatedly failed to meet protection standards.
The children, ranging in age from six months to eight years old, were discovered in a dishevelled Saint John, N.B., apartment smeared with feces and with little food for the children to eat, when sheriff’s deputies went to evict the family in 2016.
The children were malnourished and several had rotting teeth, while the two school-aged siblings had missed most of their school year.
“For approximately six weeks, the last time the social workers were in the house until the time the sheriffs went in, in May, no one was in the house. Then to find it in such deplorable condition with human and dog feces, and little hand prints on the wall, it would just break your heart,” Child and Youth Advocate Norman Bosse said as he released his report Monday.
Their parents – both drug users – were later sentenced to two years in jail, but Bosse said the parents’ failure was compounded by the government’s failure.
“Unfortunately, our review of the case, and several other similar cases that have arisen this year within the caseload of the advocate’s office alone, confirm that this is not an isolated case,” he said in his report, “Behind Closed Doors: A Story of Neglect.”
READ MORE: Questions remain in child neglect case
Bosse said social workers have a heavy caseload and face difficult situations when confronting families at their homes. He said burnout is common, with high rates of turnover.
“If working conditions are such that they spend more time in their own offices doing paperwork and managing their high caseloads than seeing their clients, it is no wonder that many would feel disheartened and burn out,” Bosse said.
Social workers need to understand and use their authority to enter a home and remove a child whose security or development may be in danger, he said.
The report said the Department of Social Development had received a total of 26 referrals about the children’s safety, not including phone calls and emails sent to social workers from school and other officials worried about the family.
“However, matters considered troubling to educators, such as high absenteeism, inadequate lunches or warm clothes, and poor hygiene, would often not meet the criteria needed to elicit a response from the department. This frustrated the school staff who felt these issues were symptoms of a greater problem but were regularly told, ‘There is nothing we can do’,” Bosse’s report said.
The day the children were found
The family cycled through multiple social workers, who had trouble gaining access to the family, likely because the parents simply weren’t answering the door.
On the day the children were found by sheriff’s officers, the only food in the kitchen was a rotting turnip, a cabbage, three boxes of Kraft Dinner and a package of Lipton’s Sidekicks.
The children were thin, pale, small and silent; some had sores around their eyes and all had feces on their faces and bodies. In fact, feces were everywhere, even “caked on” several teddy bears lying in a pile by the toilet. The apartment was damaged and flea-infested.
The oldest child, a boy, told social workers they went most days without food.
WATCH: Parents receive 2-year sentence in Saint John child neglect case
The Bosse investigation found school authorities regularly fed and clothed the unkempt boy, who was known to take crusts from others kids’ sandwiches and even take uneaten food from the garbage.
They fed and clothed his younger sister, and reported their concerns to social workers but without much apparent impact.
The report quotes one school official: “We had a sense that Social Development didn’t care; they never told us what they did with the information we sent and we don’t trust that they did anything.”
One social worker told Bosse she was always busy with other crises in her caseload.
In fact, when the case became a formal child protection file, it was one of the Saint John team’s “more benign cases,” the report said.
One supervisor noted: “You always think about the community standard, for example, is (the oldest boy) the only kid whose clothes smell like urine?”
In foster care, the oldest boy tried to hang himself on a bunk bed with a scarf. The children now live with their paternal grandparents.
Social workers respond
Miguel LeBlanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers, said he hopes the report will result in more support for social workers, such as having police accompany them on visits where parents could be confrontational.
“I think that the system is working but in this case it did fail. I think that with these recommendations, hopefully they can address that gap,” LeBlanc said.
Bosse’s report comes just days after consultant George Savoury released his own review of the province’s child protection system, making 107 recommendations dealing with everything from legislation and training to staffing and human resources.
Among the recommendations, Savoury is calling for a specific Child Protection Act for New Brunswick – the only province without one.
Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard said Monday she has already directed staff to prepare such an act, but said it could be up to 24 months to have one ready.
Shephard wasn’t the minister in 2016, but said her department doesn’t look good in the report, and she will ensure improvements are made.
“I am owning this report and there will be accountability measures put in place to make sure the recommendations are acted upon,” Shephard said.
The minister said she doesn’t want to hear about another family in the same situation under her watch, and she is already talking with other ministers about how to co-ordinate police and the education system in helping to deal with such cases.
The Progressive Conservative government is looking for savings as it prepares its operating budget for 2019-20 and Shephard said she can’t imagine losing any money and not having it affect services.
She said more social workers are needed, and case files need to be monitored to ensure no one is overburdened with high risk or high maintenance cases.
Bosse released his report in the committee room of the provincial legislature, but Green Leader David Coon was the only member of the legislature to attend.
Coon said Bosse’s reports go nowhere because there’s no committee assigned to receive them.
Still, Coon said he’s optimistic that Shephard will act on the recommendations.