Justice at a heavy price

Pam Frampton
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Justice at a heavy price

"Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both."

- Eleanor Roosevelt

Part 2 in a three-part series

Before her baby was taken from her, Sharon kept vigil at the little girl's hospital bed, all the while living in the ugly shadow of being suspected of having shaken the infant, causing bleeding on her brain and behind her retinas.

But Sharon (not her real name) was adamant she had done no such thing.

And she worried that medical staff and Child, Youth and Family Services social workers had decided she was guilty and that was that, without considering the circumstances of her daughter's difficult birth and pre-existing issues with pressure on her brain.

This is Sharon's story - an account of one parent's struggle against a system created to safeguard children, but not necessarily those who care for them.

When Sharon's five-month-old daughter had an episode of sudden lethargy, similar to the one that led to her being admitted to hospital in the first place, she quickly called for help. Her sister, a pediatric nurse, was with her.

By the time the hospital nurse got to the room, the baby had come around again, just as she had during the initial episode.

"I was getting miffed, because I was accused, and here there was something clearly wrong with her," Sharon said. "The pediatrician told us it was reflux, but a child's head doesn't go limp from reflux."

A week later, her daughter was plucked from her arms and taken away.

Sharon would not see her baby daughter for 10 inconsolable days.

The cloud of suspicion would loom much longer - two whole years.

Sharon soon found herself mired in a catch-22 of bureaucracy - she needed her daughter's medical records to prove her innocence, but she did not have easy access to them because she was under suspicion.

It's a system where the well-being of the child is paramount, and that's as it should be. I don't envy the doctor or social worker who has to make the call as to whether or not a child has been abused or neglected.

The problem is, once a parent or caregiver has been labelled a child abuser, tunnel vision seems to take hold.

They are deemed guilty until and unless they can prove otherwise. And proof comes at a heavy price.

So, for two years, whenever Sharon was permitted time with her daughter, she was watched like a hawk.

° ° °

Sick with worry, Sharon started the process of trying to regain access to her child. It took more than two months just to get before the courts.

She had gone from being a primary caregiver to being relegated to six hours of access a week.

"Six hours a week in an office with a supervisor, with maggoty floors, nowhere to change her, no hand-washing facilities, food ground into the floor," Sharon recalls of the grungy surroundings.

"It was so dirty, I wouldn't let her play with the toys - I brought my own stuff. I asked the doctor for followup imaging for her (to see if any further bleeding had occurred during the child's hospital stay) and was denied."

Sharon kept fighting for more access and was eventually allowed 12 hours a week. She had to drive three hours, return trip, three times a week to see her daughter for a four-hour period, with the child asleep for half that time.

If she hadn't been off work on medical leave, she would've been hard pressed to keep those appointments.

Once, like any parent with an interest in their child's development, Sharon brought some mashed boiled egg for the baby, who was by then nine months old and eating solids.

Even though Newfoundland and Labrador health guidelines recommend waiting until a child is a year old before introducing eggs, Sharon's research told her otherwise. Eat Right Ontario, for example, says children between six and nine months can eat cooked eggs.

"She loved them," Sharon said.

Then she got a call from the social worker.

"No more homemade foods. Everything had to be brought in sealed containers. We, and my lawyer, met with social workers and they admitted they suspected I was trying to poison my child. Mom was not allowed to feed her Tim Hortons porridge because I was with her."

And yet Sharon was never charged with any crime.

"The police told social workers they thought I did it, but that they didn't have enough evidence," she said.

It seems incredible that no one considered the possibility that there wasn't any evidence.

° ° °

It took Sharon a full year to get copies of all her daughter's medical records. She couldn't make her case without it.

"Eastern Health threw up roadblocks," she said. "Everywhere we turned, there were roadblocks."

And then, in August 2011, there was a glimmer of hope. A friend told Sharon about an Evidence-Based Medicine and Social Investigation Conference being held in British Columbia.

She attended and was stunned to meet other people who had also been falsely accused of shaken baby syndrome, all based on the flawed hypothesis that if there is brain and retinal bleeding in a child that's not caused by an obviously accidental injury, then the child has been abused.

And woe betide the last person who had the child in their care.

In June 2012, Sharon finally got the last piece of medical documentation she needed to muster her defence.

Her family hired an American lawyer to work with local counsel and found medical experts in the United States who were familiar with similar cases.

"Only for poor old Mom - if Mom hadn't have been there, I don't know what I would've done without her," Sharon said.

"We used all her retirement savings. Financially, it drained everybody. I was fighting to get my daughter back at my house. I fought for overnights. I didn't get them until I presented supervisors to the court who I wanted - Mom and a couple of my friends. My friends were approved, but not Mom - a nurse her whole life. Even then it didn't happen very often, because I preferred to have time with (the baby) when she was awake."

Sharon's sister took leave from her job on the mainland so she could offer support.

"I had to have 100 per cent supervision," Sharon recalls. "It went from four hours a day to eventually eight hours a day. My sister made a huge sacrifice - she gave up her income and took a leave of absence for a year. She ended up losing her job."

Sharon hadn't been charged with anything, but no one seemed willing to consider any other possibility except that she had shaken her baby, even though the child's illness could be logically and medically attributed to the circumstances of her birth.

The stress on the family was intense.

"We were paying big money," Sharon said. "We went through two lawyers. We flew in doctors as experts and had to pay for airfare to get them here, and hotels and some meals. I had been off work for two years, at that point."

Sharon sold some of her furniture to try to make ends meet. But the ends did not meet. Her disability pay hardly put a dent in the cost of her defence; court cases are rarely cheap for either party.

I can't quote from the judge's decision because the case was heard in Family Court and is subject to a publication ban, but the outcome is clear: there was no conclusive proof that the child had ever been shaken.

Sharon regained joint custody, which she shares with the child's father.

She has to pay child support for the period of time when she was denied access to her daughter. She's also repaying her mother.

She lost her house and the tens of thousands of dollars of equity she had invested in it. She has temporary accommodations, but doesn't know where she'll be in the fall.

"I've declared bankruptcy," she said flatly. "The bank is taking the house. Altogether it's cost me about $200,000, all for bringing her to the hospital to get help, and there's nobody to say, 'Sorry, we've made a mistake.' But I am thankful that she's healthy and alive."

Next week: tunnel vision

Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram's associate managing editor. Email pframpton@thetelegram.com. Twitter: pam_frampton


Organizations: Youth and Family Services, Tim Hortons

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Eastern Health, British Columbia United States

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Recent comments

  • Lisa Arlin
    October 30, 2014 - 19:14

    Their are many parents being falsely accused of child abuse or shaking baby's syndrome this is happening way to much in BC and what happneed to the mother in the story was unconsciable and the child protection agencies are never accountable the mother loses her house her job her child and the outcome she was never charged and the allegations were baseless and what happens to children is really sad some die or are seriously damaged in foster care. Shame on child protection workers while you are falsely accusing the parents of child abuse those children wouldn't be so damaged and this is why there needs to be a review of they way workers investigate child protection concerns prior to removing any child because other wise you are placing that child at risk. I would also like to say with respect to visits automatically social workers try and keep visits to 1 to 2 hours per week and lesson the bond between child and parent and you have to go through 2 to for years of court hell when you are wrongfully accused of child abuse such as shaken baby syndrome most parents just are grateful to get thier children back but child protection services caused your child harm the must be liable to the parent but the problem child protection agencies never are and parent just take this abuse from them and that is just sad so many falsely accused like the mother in this story and are left to recover from it all! Child protection services are being hit with serial class action law suits to join the Brisitsh ColimbIprovince wide class action please go to MCFD EXPOSED on Facebook no parent should suffer abuse by child protection services like the mother in this story did no parent should suffer being falsely accused especially alone...

  • Angela
    July 01, 2013 - 13:48

    so their was no criminal case, yet Cyfs can still deem someone guiltily with never being charged? Is it just me or does that not make sense? I do think it needed to be investigated, but social workers are not trained as actual criminal investigators so shouldn't be the main decision makers. Nor should anyone under the age of 25 be a Cyfs social worker involved in such decisions, as those under 25 still do not have a fully developed brain and the part that's not developed is related to cause and effect. If Sharon is talking about the supervised access rooms at Cyfs, I would have to agree with her on their conditions. I went with my cousin on one of her visits and the rooms are stark, unsanitized and yes, I'm sure the social workers aren't going in and cleaning the toys. There are no colorful paintings on the walls and it doesn't look like a nice place for a child who is going through something very traumatic. A child psychologist or specialist should be consulted with as to how to make the rooms more child- centered.

  • Stephen D Redgrave
    June 26, 2013 - 10:57

    Shaken Baby Syndrome has been a dubiuos science at best for as log as the term has been used. I am so glad Pam is sheding some true light on this topic which is still in it's infancy. Never should this un proven theory ever have been allowed as evidence in any courtroom at any time. When respected UK researchers says "It's not possible"---trust It is not possible. It is not viable evidence in any way shape or form. Mike Tyson could not re create Shaken Baby Syndrome with all the strength he could muster. What the heck makes any "specialist" think any one else could do it.

  • coco
    June 24, 2013 - 15:47

    "And yet Sharon was never charged with any crime." Had she been charged, it would have been a matter for the courts to decide. It's beyond ridiculous to have doctors or social workers deciding on matters of crime and punishment where children are concerned. Law enforcement officers don't appear to be using their investigative training in these cases at all but rather going along as mere personal bodyguards. That's a waste of resources. What type of person makes a call like that without investigating it anyway (medical history)? It's not even sensible. Thank goodness for Award-winning journalists like Pam Frampton who obviously follow up on investigating facts from various sources before making stories public. Sometimes we don't appreciate how fortunate we are to have them and anyone considering censuring the press should go back and read their history before it repeats itself. This story tears the heart out of me although I'm not involved in any way. Looking forward to Part 3 to see how it all panned out and hopefully the family are duly compensated.

  • Unknown
    June 24, 2013 - 09:33

    I believe there are two sides to every story, and from reading these articles it is obvious there is a lot of information left in the dark. When it comes to a precious child articles like these should NOT be aloud in the media, some people may say oh well the public should be aware of what is going on, but I beg to differ. A child's well being is more important then all the money in the world. That little child needs to be the number one priority in this case and if that meant taking her away from the suspected mother, then so it should be. I am sure that little child is being well cared for. Our justice system is not THAT bad, they are not going to put a child in an unsafe environment like this mother is making it seem. My mother worked as a social worker and I grew up hearing of situations like this, and I am confident that we do not have as bad a justice system as people make it to be. I have always heard the saying "a child should never go without its mother" but what about its father, not in every situation the father is in the wrong. A parent is a parent. I would be the first to say our justice system is wrong if they had left the child with this mother even though they had suspicion she was in the wrong, because then, yes, that child could have been in more danger and no one would have known. So yes, I think both sides need to be heard on this story. But the most important thing for a child like this, is that she grow up knowing she is loved, and not be tossed through a justice system. Stability is the best thing.

  • crista
    June 23, 2013 - 15:13

    To; the writer of this article long over due article if they can abuse????the powers of Government and not only Government and the Decisions that go with the abuse of power and the legislation of laws and rights that are enforced by the powers that govern society it is hardly right to abuse the writer and the victim for the reasons of this article???? not trying to insult any one but if any one is trying to be a critic of the abuse of the powers???? that is how it gets passed over from generations and not only just talking about this article???? you should be surprised you are reading this article???? waiting on justice????

    June 23, 2013 - 00:05

    I understand Ms. Frampton's inclination to advocate on behalf of people like Sharon. I have no doubt that there are problems with the system and that, at times, there are parents who are falsely accused of abuse or neglect. That said, Ms. Frampton is also a journalist and, as such, must adhere to certain standards of reporting - especially those of accuracy and objectivity. The problem with the first and second instalment is that they are poorly written. In particular, they lack internal consistency - i.e. they don't make sense. The sequence of events leading to the protective custody order is very confused. For example, Sharon brings her five month old to the hospital (is this the first or second trip - not sure?) with what she believes are symptoms of lethargy. A doctor reportedly diagnoses reflux. At this point the story fast forwards one week where the infant is taken from her. Neither Frampton or Sharon seemingly knows or wants to say how this went from acid indigestion to serious brain injury. The rest of the story is largely about how Sharon spends every dime she and her family can muster to get her baby back. And according to Ms. Frampton, Sharon has 'truth' on her side. Apparently the basis for that assertion is a Family Court judgement (which cannot be quoted) that concludes there was insufficient proof the baby was actually shaken. Objective journalism demands there be some acknowledgement of the challenge faced by government agencies and the courts with respect to Shaken Baby Syndrome. Seldom are there witnesses to the shaking of babies. Although other factors are taken into consideration - given the gravity of the risks to children - the courts have been inclined to accept a certain pattern of brain damage as evidence that shaking took place.To insist on a confession or a you-tube video of the act would be to condemn a small helpless victim to a very grim outlook. (Ironically, we currently have an appeal before the courts wherein even an admission of shaking is argued as insufficient for conviction). I commend the mother and her family for their perseverance. I hope it goes well for the child, but none of us can really say - based on the paltry facts provided in this article - whether the mother did or did not shake her baby. The emphasis must be on protecting the child. So many of the problems endemic in today's society can be traced back to an abusive or neglectful childhood. As more enlightened jurisdictions like those in Scandinavia have come to accept, an ounce of prevention can be worth many pounds of cure. I will say however, that while I understand the rationale for banning publication of the evidence or judgement, I'm not convinced that transparency wouldn't serve the public, the parent and even the child better in the long run. At the very least, it should be possible for journalists like Ms. Frampton to quote from a redacted copy of the judgement - i.e. names of the parties deleted. We have to empower our child protection agencies to take action when they deem it necessary, but we must also insist on a very robust system of oversight - and where necessary prompt recourse to the courts. I do like some of Ms. Frampton's work but I have serious issues with this one - as indeed I did with one she wrote last year regarding the trial of Nelson Hart for allegedly killing his two small children. I felt she was unfair in her characterization of that original conviction as a 'Rush to Judgement, notwithstanding that it was subsequently overturned and is now being appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. If we are serious about addressing the ills of society, we must find ways to interrupt the cycle and culture of violence that are all too often passed from one generation to the next.

    • Pam Frampton
      June 23, 2013 - 10:27

      FINTIP, I am not a reporter, I am a columnist. There is a difference. I have no obligation, professionally, to be objective. In fact, commentators are expected to be the very opposite. I am sorry you find the story difficult to follow, but I cannot provide details that would identify this child, who, by the way, shows no sign of having any lasting brain damage. She had bleeding on the brain, which cannot be definitively time-dated. I cannot cite the judge's decision, as you point out, but I am quite familiar with it and my series has been based on these facts: the mother was accused of having shaken the baby; she maintains she did not shake the baby; medical experts testified there was no evidence the baby was shaken; the judge agreed, More on this in part 3.

    • Gerry
      June 23, 2013 - 19:24

      Fintip, you are taking sides but you may have a reason. You have serious issues with her articles. Why? Do you agree with the actions of a doctor in Toronto who years ago made false statements which sent innocent parents to jail? Not all of the misfits of society had a bad childhood but they must blame someone. We need a recourse which enables Sharron to hold each of her accusers ( doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, police) liable and from whom she can recover her financial costs. As long as those people can hide behind the system while trying to justify their actions to climb the working ladder we will always have people like Sharron.

  • stacy
    June 22, 2013 - 14:19

    There are way too many of these stories', myself believe that my family are a make work project for the government. I have 2 children now in custody as we had no choice. Our older daughter is on anxiety medication from childhood traumas of a young worker coming into the house & taking her. My 2 children currently in care are treating it like a jail sentence my son has the months counted down to when he is 16 & my 12 yr old is doing the same. We were told that our house was too "cluttered" for the children to be in it. They were taken on a look through the window by a fresh out of school worker with of course no children. They were put in a home 2 hours away & we got to see them on weekends. In this foster home they were abused & the more we told the worker this ( we had been through 3 iin about 3 months) we were told we were just "angry" our children were taken. Then one day the children camein we did not know anything that was going on for 7 weeks we had the children & then they were put in an ALA still 2 hours away from home.They wouldn't put them in one close to home as the young worker out there ( the one who discovered our children were being beaten) said she did not want to take them away from their friends. the supervisor then said that he wanted to send the children home . He was willing to do what ever it took to bring the children home with us their family. all of a sudden the supervisor in here ( were in st johns) said that it wasn't an option. Now instead of the children being home & happy with their loving family theyre 3 hours away. the department spends at least $300 a weekend to bring them in here. they are in a foster home & get a taxi to their school . This is where I believe the children are a makework project look at all the jobs that would be lost if the children came home. Every week we have a worker come in with a check list of what needs to be done in the home before the children can come in. Our life isn't private anymore we evenhave to open the coubards to show we have food. There are way too many inexperienced workers there who are fresh out of school with no children of their own who are going by the book on how children should be. Now when my children are home they will need to go to counselling for the things they saw in foster care. Best for the children who ever thought that are full of it. And of course legal aid is no help they have 1 lawyer working with cyfs & I bet he is in their back pocket too as he usually agrees with them.

  • ad ped
    June 22, 2013 - 13:44

    I read with horror part 1 and now part 2. I agree with the person who said she should bring her story to the Fifth Estate. I do also understand that social workers and physicians have to be diligent in protecting children, but if they did bother to take the time to research the poor child`s medical history, they should not have been so quick to judge so harshly... and to provide a mother with a space with maggoty floors, nowhere to change her, no hand-washing facilities, food ground into the floor, sounds like they were trying to set the child up with an illness or infection that they could blame on the mother. Shame on them... there should be both accountability for the ``professionals`` and an apology and full financial compensation for this mom and child

  • Bigger issues than this
    June 22, 2013 - 12:23

    As unjust and cruel the fate of this woman and those wrongfully accused of abuse is, thankfully cases like the one described do not happen very often. What does happen every day is fathers being denied access to their children on the whim of mothers, with no other cause other than the breakdown of a family relationship. Thousands of dads in this country are denied access to their children forcing them to spend their life savings to gain minimal access, endure the same kinds of stress and suffering, and you'll rarely see any media coverage of it whatsoever. Horrible, isn't it?

  • gerry
    June 22, 2013 - 10:06

    un.freakin'.real. But this is nothing new. Cases like this are rampant through out north America. So much for being innocent until proven guilty. To have the majority, average middle & lower class Jane & John Slob have to declare bankruptcy once it's all done is a sad state of affairs of our so-called justice system & an embarrassment to our 'democrtatic' way of life. Of course, if Sharon was a millionire she could have prbably bought herself justice ina third of the time....

  • bob conway
    June 22, 2013 - 09:51

    sad story .and the legal community are no help.unless you count out the money on ther desk.so hard to finf justice today,in canada.

  • Unbelievable
    June 22, 2013 - 07:26

    Wow, this story sounds like a horror movie. Social workers and people in positions of authority have way too much power. Period. This young woman is probably burnt out from everything she has been through, but someone should step forward and help her launch a law suit against the people who put her through this. Personally, I think she should bring her story to the Fifth Estate. People across the country will hear about it and come on board. I have personal experience with the havoc mis-guided medical professionals and social workers can cause, and I wish I had fought harder to bring our situation into the public eye. Thanks for telling this story, Pam.