A shocking new report by Newfoundland and Labrador's child and youth advocate reveals a group of siblings being subjected to years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse while on the radar of officials.
It all happened while the family received services from the Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development (CCSD). Early in the care, the family was deemed “low risk.”
“These children did not deserve what happened to them and it was not their fault. I want to clearly state this,” child and youth advocate Jackie Lake Kavanagh said in “Seen But Not Heard," a report released Thursday.
“While this seems to state the obvious, I still see victim blaming in our society. Adults were responsible for these children and they failed. I truly hope these children find a path to healing and their welfare is the first consideration. And I hope they are heard.”
Lake Kavanagh said the abuse also consisted of confinement and lack of stimulation, food deprivation and poor nutrition, as well as harsh physical discipline.
"I truly hope these children find a path to healing and their welfare is the first consideration. And I hope they are heard.” — Excerpt from "Seen But Not Heard" report
According to the report, her office first became aware of the family when the mother sought more access to her children.
Child services had hired a home-care agency to help a family member care for the children, but that didn’t work out and so the home was transformed into a staffed residential arrangement under a protective care agreement.
The children disclosed a history of prolonged and severe abuse, which eventually led to criminal conviction of family members and the kids were then placed under a continuous custody order, or permanent care by the department.
Two home-care agencies were contracted to provide care, but the home-care workers weren’t adequately educated or trained to understand the complex issues in the family, Lake Kavanagh concluded.
The parents also knew some of the workers and warned the children not to talk.
Prior to the court trial, one of the children told the department and police they felt they were not believed for years.
“There were many instances where the children reported varying levels of physical or emotional abuse. CSSD had received multiple child protection reports regarding the parents’ use of physical discipline. The police investigated many times,” the report said. “The parents denied the abuse, and CSSD or the police indicated not being able to verify the concerns because of lack of evidence, or because the children would later say the abuse did not occur in efforts to protect their parents. “
Even after the home became a staffed residential arrangement, the department got reports of harmful and abusive interactions between some workers and the children.
One worker was fired and charged, and others were dismissed as well for inappropriate interactions, including assault.
The staffed residential arrangement continued for about two years before the children were moved to long-term foster homes.
“There were a series of failures to provide the care and love that these children deserved. It began with their family and continued through lack of effective state intervention. The children said they felt they were not heard. No child should find themselves in the situation these children experienced,” Lake Kavanagh said.
"No child should find themselves in the situation these children experienced." — Excerpt from "Seen But Not Heard" report
When the family first came into contact with the department, the social worker indicated she was not meeting them as often as needed due to the demands of higher risk families on her caseload.
“Appropriate and timelier intervention during the children’s involvement with protection services was warranted,” the report states.
The mother’s abuse of the children escalated as they aged.
The parents forbid simple hygiene practices such as toothbrushing. The children were prevented from using the bathroom at night.
The regional health authority determined that several of the children were behind in their developmental milestones, such as crawling and walking.
The department, said the report, knew the children were often hungry. The children got up in the middle of the night to find food, took leftovers from children at school and fought with each other over food.
After the children came into care, they disclosed their parents had sometimes eaten at restaurants and left them in the car but teased them with food.
The abuse grew darker.
“CSSD missed opportunities to explore the children’s inappropriate level of sexual knowledge. Once the children were in care, they disclosed sexual abuse. CSSD treated some sexual concerns as child protection reports but did not adequately explore these concerns as they did other concerns in the family,’ the report said.
Two years before the kids were removed, the department hired a consultant to complete an independent assessment. Although there were many concerns, the consultant recommended the children remain with their parents and concluded the department’s supportive services reduced the risk to the children.
“CSSD missed opportunities to explore the children’s inappropriate level of sexual knowledge." — Excerpt from "Seen But Not Heard" report
However, parenting rights cannot supersede children’s rights to safety and security, Lake Kavanagh pointed out.
There were a number of supports provided to the parents. One of them even completed a parenting program several times, but with minimal success. Psychiatry and psychology services were also engaged.
Lake Kavanagh made a number of recommendations and the department’s responses included in the report indicated they were largely accepted.
The Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development improve prevention and early intervention services to children and families at risk.
The department ensure that families requiring in-home parenting support and supervision are provided with qualified, trauma-informed support workers.
The department enact recommendations related to mental health and addictions and co-ordinate the complex services they offer families.
The department seek and create opportunities to collaborate with Memorial University and other service providers and experts to address the professional education of child protection social workers in the areas of child protection assessment and intervention with parents who have complex mental health diagnoses.
There were also a number of recommendations regarding improvements to monitoring and enforcement.
Once CSSD received a continuous custody order for the children’s care, it took almost two years for the children to have a long-term plan in place, and there was also recommended the department ensure specific measures are taken for permanency planning.
Read the report