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Thoughts on Halifax Standoff
May 22, 2005 permalink
Today the Halifax Herald published two stories on the Shirley Street standoff, one on Carline VandenElsen's hunger strike, the other below.
Child protection system comes under scrutiny
Expert says laws up to date, despite criticism of cops' handling of standoff
By MICHAEL LIGHTSTONE / Staff Reporter
A year ago, a three-day police standoff in Halifax involving a five-month-old girl, her parents, her grandmother and heavily armed officers thrust child-welfare issues in Nova Scotia into the spotlight.
During a controversial nighttime effort to enforce a court order authorized under provincial child-protection laws, police were rebuffed by the youngster's despairing parents.
An officer rammed the front door of 6161 Shirley St. about three times before a shotgun was fired at police from inside the house.
The 67-hour siege ended with the death of the baby's 79-year-old grandmother, Mona Finck, due to natural causes.
Larry Finck and his wife, Carline VandenElsen, were eventually charged and recently convicted in connection with the incident. They'll be sentenced in late June.
The couple's child, now 17 months old, is in foster care.
Mr. Finck and Ms. VandenElsen are in custody awaiting their fate. Ms. VandenElsen began a hunger strike Saturday to protest her plight.
She said she sees no alternative.
"My husband and I are the first Canadian parents to be convicted of acting to protect our offspring," she said in a strongly worded release.
Critics of how police and child-welfare authorities handled the case have said the province's child-protection laws need to be changed to keep more families together.
Dalhousie University law professor Rollie Thompson, who helped with the task the last time the legislation had a major revision (1989-90), said Nova Scotia's statutes are in line with other jurisdictions in Canada.
"It was a significant modernization from the 1976 statute," he said.
Mr. Thompson said that compared to Ontario, which made major changes to its law that allowed authorities to take many children from their parents, Nova Scotia is doing well.
"The Ontario child-welfare system is clogged with children who've been taken into care or been placed into care after a court order," he said.
Mr. Finck and Ms. VandenElsen had run afoul of the law before. He's done time for abducting a daughter from a previous relationship in Ontario in 1999; she has triplets from an earlier marriage who are in the care of her ex-husband in Ontario.
Ms. VandenElsen was originally acquitted of abducting the triplets, who are now about 12 years old, but she will be retried in Stratford, Ont., this fall.
That acrimonious custody battle has long played out in Ontario courts. "It is unlikely (the three children) can remember a time when their parents were not fighting over them," a court document says.
In Nova Scotia, aside from well-publicized criticisms of how Halifax Regional Police and child-welfare officials handled the standoff, there have been calls for an inquiry in the case.
Last summer, Ms. VandenElsen urged Canadians to demand a public probe - an investigation rejected by the provincial government - into the neighbourhood episode that made headlines across the country and prompted letters to the editor of this and other newspapers.
"Let us all ask ourselves what we would have done if we had been confronted with the same situation," a Halifax woman wrote this newspaper in July. "Just being awakened in the middle of the night is terrifying enough, without the purpose and the episode that followed."
The siege was also punctuated by unorthodox behaviour by Mr. Finck and Ms. VandenElsen. Police never fired a shot but used a robot to make deliveries to the house.
The couple's contempt for the child-protection and justice systems was front and centre in the form of a sign Mr. Finck placed outside a window. It said All to Hide the Criminal Abuse of Children by Lawyers.
Theresa Brien, a spokeswoman for regional police, said recently the department doesn't "have any reason to believe that we didn't follow proper procedure" during the standoff.
"However, we do conduct an operational review of . . . major incidents, and this would be included in that," she acknowledged.
Ms. Brien said the internal review is ongoing but she couldn't say when it would be finished.
She said operational reviews are done to examine police conduct and learn potential lessons from a particular incident.
Though some Shirley Street residents praised the actions of police, others who followed the event in news reports felt the department mishandled the situation.
"This confrontation surely underscores the need for a searching public debate to examine policies governing the creation and use of militarized police emergency response teams," a Kings County man said a year ago in a letter to this newspaper.
He said such public scrutiny would ensure deployment of emergency response teams "is consistent with fundamental principles of restraint and proportionality in the use of force."
At trial in Halifax, Ms. VandenElsen was described as a protective, loving mother. Court heard her lawyer at the time, Burnley (Rocky) Jones, stop short of saying her cause justified her means.
"It always boils down to the fact that she has this undying deep love and connection to her children, and because she has taken certain actions as a mother she is now facing these serious criminal charges," he said.
On May 12, Ms. VandenElsen and Mr. Finck were convicted of several charges by a Nova Scotia Supreme Court jury. The verdicts came after two days of deliberations following a nine-week trial marked by outbursts and accusations by the defendants.
Nova Scotia's child-welfare and family-services staff deal with about 14,000 families in the province, a government official said last May shortly after the Shirley Street standoff ended.
Of those, some 700 cases a year appear before the courts. About 30 cases involve a youngster being taken into protective custody, the province has said.
The Children and Family Services Act sets out 14 situations in which a child requires protection. But the law stipulates that details of individual cases are to be kept confidential which, critics have charged, makes it difficult to know if the system is working as it should, and who's to be held accountable if it isn't.
Asked about the Finck/VandenElsen case, a spokeswoman with the Community Services Department declined comment.
"This matter is actually still before the courts, on appeal, and because of that fact . . . we're not really able to provide any further information," Terri Green said recently.
Mr. Thompson didn't want to comment on the child-welfare system in the context of the Halifax standoff because, he said, it is so unique.
"It's like talking about a moon that comes through the solar system once every so many hundred years."
He said the case "tells us nothing at the moment. In terms of the broader system and the day-to-day parents that I've represented and other people represent, . . . it tells us nothing about that."
Speaking about provincial legislation, Mr. Thompson said child-protection laws are "a kind of a check" on resources and "the approach" of social workers in the field.
"Legislation isn't what drives the system," he said in an interview. "What drives the system is resources and the approach of child-welfare authorities - the resources they have available to them to do their job, and the general social-work culture and approach in child protection."
Mr. Thompson said in general, "there's not been a demand for massive changes in (child-welfare law) in Nova Scotia at this point."
What's important, he said, is "that on a day-to-day basis what matters is the . . . services available to parents. The statute is not that helpful in that subject."
On May 13, Mr. Finck served notice he wanted their convictions stayed, claiming he and his wife were entrapped by police, but Justice Robert Wright ruled against his motion.
Court documents filed three days later confirmed what many observers predicted would be the next chapter in the saga - the couple are appealing their convictions.
Source: Halifax Herald
An inquiry into the case of Carline VandenElsen and Larry Finck must be avoided at all costs. If held, it would have to reveal the contents of the complaint leading to the warrant to apprehend the baby. They are frivolous, or we would have seen them by now.
Rollie Thompson is quoted as saying: "It's like talking about a moon that comes through the solar system once every so many hundred years".
Oh? Just in Dufferin county, with only 50000 people, social workers enter a new home on a weekly basis, and always do so with one or more armed policemen as escort. It's hard to believe it happens in Nova Scotia, with nearly a million people, only once in centuries.
Every day Carline VandenElsen and Larry Finck are incarcerated and separated from their baby, the Province of Nova Scotia is adding to its atrocity. Carline VandenElsen's demise at the end of her hunger strike would relieve the child protectors in Nova Scotia, since it would end their continuing atrocity.
The police are conducting an operational review of the siege. Here are some suggestions:
These improvements will bring Canada up to the state-of-the-art in child protection.