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Politicians Squabble over Dead Girl

September 21, 2005 permalink

Sherry Charlie was a ward of child protectors in British Columbia, and died in their care. In this case as well, the child protectors attempt to blame the contractors for their failure.




Tot's death probe sparks new inquiry

Children's ministry under fire for avoiding spotlight in investigation of Sherry Charlie case

Lindsay Kines and Jeff Rud, Times Colonist

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

B.C.'s Children and Family Development Minister Stan Hagen announced an inquiry Tuesday into why his ministry altered its investigation into the death of 19-month-old Sherry Charlie.

In a move quickly dismissed by the NDP as another coverup, Hagen said the inquiry won't re-open the original investigation or examine the ministry's role in Sherry's care.

Instead, Hagen asked Attorney General Wally Oppal to appoint Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley to investigate. She will look at why the original review's terms of reference were changed to focus on the aboriginal agency involved, rather than the ministry. Morley will also examine the time it took to release the report, a censored version of which was first issued earlier this summer. Finally, she will study the ministry's policy regarding internal investigations.

The report is due Dec. 1.

NDP children's critic Adrian Dix predicted a whitewash, because the government didn't instruct Morley to ask questions that were deliberately ignored by the original probe.

Dix said Morley's review won't look at the role that ministry budget cuts, staff reductions, and a massive reorganization played in Sherry's death.

"This is an investigation to tell us a very limited number of things, to tell us who said what to whom in the Ministry of Children and Families," Dix said. "But the failure of the child protection system is what they continue to cover up with this investigation.''

Sherry died at Port Alberni in 2002 after being placed with her uncle under a kith and kin arrangement, in which children are given to relatives rather than taken into foster care. Sherry's uncle killed her a few weeks after she was placed in his home by the Nuu-chah-nulth child protection agency, Usma.

The ministry's investigation uncovered failings, including the fact that a criminal record check was never completed on the uncle, who had a history of violent offences. The review also found problems with information sharing between the aboriginal agency and the ministry. Agency social workers weren't trained to do kith-and-kin agreements, and the ministry provided only partial background information.

But, in response to NDP questions this week, Hagen confirmed that early in the investigation, senior officials in his ministry changed the terms of reference to block the probe from looking at the ministry's role in Sherry's care.

Hagen produced two documents Tuesday showing that in a letter dated Sept. 26, 2002, David Young, director of child protection responsible for aboriginal agencies, states that the review of Sherry's death will examine five areas, including whether the ministry's response met established standards. The recipient of the letter is blanked out.

In a subsequent letter dated Nov. 6, Young drops any mention of the ministry's response, and says the review will look at four areas.

Source: Times Colonist

Addendum: The death of nineteen-month-old Sherry Charlie in British Columbia has provoked a political scandal. We will not be posting every development in the story, but a reader forwarded the following three articles giving most of the facts of her unnecessary death.



Sherry's mom warned agency not to place daughter with her aunt

Julie Frank
Julie Frank is angry over her daughter's senseless death.
CREDIT: Debra Brash, Victoria Times Colonist

NANAIMO -- She has watched her late daughter's sweet young face splashed across newspapers and shown on the evening news; seen her name used to argue about child protection policy and to make political points.

But all Julie Frank can think about is that she will never hold her daughter again. And about just how senseless her death was.

Frank is the mother of Sherry Charlie, the toddler who was beaten to death in September 2002, just weeks after she was apprehended by Nuu-chah-nulth child protection agency Usma and placed in what was supposed to be a safe environment.

"I just want to make sure that they never do this to anybody else again,'' Frank said this week. "I just want to make sure that they're going to take proper procedures for future children who are going to be in care and who are supposed to be protected.''

When Julie Frank talks about "they" she means the provincial government and Usma, which placed Sherry and her older brother, Jamie, in the home of her aunt.

That placement resulted in Sherry being killed by the aunt's common-law partner, Ryan Dexter George, now serving a 10-year sentence for beating the youngster when she wouldn't stop crying. Frank remains deeply angry with Usma and says the agency is now keeping her from regaining custody of her son.

"I just feel like they were hypocrites, by taking my kids from me because they said I was an unfit mother,'' said Frank, her soft brown eyes welling with tears and her voice breaking as she related her story across a coffee shop table. "To put them in a home like that and to have it cost my daughter her life . . . .

"They're trying to cover up their tracks and they're trying to make me look like I'm the really bad person. I've never, ever been treated fairly by these people and that's why I want to be heard.''

Under B.C.'s Child, Family and Community Service Act, children can be removed from their family and placed with relatives, a foster family or in specialized residential resources if there is reason to believe they are being abused, neglected, or in need of protection.

Julie Frank, who had Sherry when she was 19, doesn't believe there was ever enough reason for her children to be apprehended. She said Usma acted after a baby-sitting mix-up resulted in somebody witnessing Sherry being left unattended near the water's edge and after another witness misinterpreted her reaction to a temper tantrum by Jamie.

That issue aside, Julie Frank said she warned Usma not to place the children in the home with George.

Contrary to the ministry case review of Sherry's death and to statements made by minister Stan Hagen in the legislature, Frank said she did not approve of the placement.

"It was my mom and the whole family that made that decision for me that [the children] were going to go to Claudette [her aunt] and Ryan's,'' Frank said. "And I said: 'No I don't want my kids there, especially my daughter. My son's old enough to tell me when somebody's hurting him but my daughter's not.'

"I already knew that [George] had an anger problem. I said 'No, I don't want them there.' ''

Shawn Atleo, co-chairman of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribal council, said Tuesday that Usma likely wouldn't be able to specifically respond to Frank's comments. "We would be then wanting to have a conversation about a single case and the interaction of social workers with an individual,'' Atleo said. "That's the kind of business that is between the agency and the family.''

Atleo referred such questions to an Usma spokeswoman who did not return a call Tuesday.

But in a news release last week, the tribal council said: "We remain confident in our agency and staff who have dealt with more than 5,000 reports in 18 years. All our staff engaged in child protection have university degrees, specific and ongoing training, are delegated by MCFD [the Ministry of Children and Family Development] and act under experienced supervision, following the same legislation that applies to all children and families in B.C.''

Frank said she was told by Usma that it was either place the children in her aunt's home or see them go to total strangers. "I didn't want my kids going through that,'' she said. "They already knew Claudette and her kids . . . You know, I had no say . . . I felt outnumbered by my family."

Even though she subsequently visited her aunt's house, sometimes staying overnight, Frank said she continued to have concerns about the home.

On Sept. 4 she was called to her mother's residence in Port Alberni because of a family emergency. When she got there, an uncle told her something had happened to Sherry. "He didn't tell me until we got to the hospital that my daughter had died on the way there,'' she said.

That same day, Frank said she was told that her then-three-year-old son was responsible for Sherry's fall down a flight of stairs.

Frank didn't believe the accusations and said she again pushed Usma to remove her boy from the home. That didn't happen until five months later.

Now six years old, her son has since lived in the home of Matthew Lucas, Frank's maternal uncle. She feels Usma has unreasonably thwarted her attempts to regain custody.

"I feel I am treated unfairly because of what happened to my daughter,'' she said. "And I don't feel I should be paying for it or my son. I just wish I had a second chance to be a mom.''

Frank admitted to falling into alcohol abuse after the death of her daughter but said it wasn't a factor in the initial apprehension of her children.

"That's when it really hit me is when my daughter passed away,'' she said. "I didn't know how to deal with it." Frank said she's since been through two stints in alcohol treatment centres in Tofino and Vancouver as well as relapse prevention, parenting and anger-management classes. She's been sober now for six months, she said.

She alleged Usma has been uncooperative, even cutting back her visitation rights as her daughter's death receives more media play. She said she once got full weekend visits, but now has just 3 1/2 hours every two weeks.

Frank said she does not support a request this week that her daughter's name and image no longer be used in the legislature and the media. "If it's going to keep other children [from the same fate,] that's fine with me.''

The request was made at a meeting in Port Alberni Monday attended by Nuu-chah-nulth leaders, social workers from Usma, "family members," Hagen and NDP leader Carole James. Hagen and James emerged from the meeting saying they would stop using Sherry's name in the legislature.

The politicians were told Nuu-chah-nulth custom calls for everybody to "put away" the name of a deceased person.

More questions than answers

Mother wonders why son was left in killer's house; Opposition critic presents list of 50 queries

For five months after toddler Sherry Charlie was beaten to death by a caregiver in 2002, the girl's older brother was left in the same home and even blamed for his sister's death.

The children's mother and Opposition NDP want to know how the provincial government and the Nuu-chah-nulth child protection agency that placed them could let that happen.

That is among a list of "50 unanswered questions" surrounding Charlie's death presented by NDP childcare critic Adrian Dix on Wednesday. Dix has sent a copy of those questions to the members of a panel appointed by government this week to study the province's handling of child death reviews.

In an interview with the Times Colonist last week, the children's' mother, Julie Frank, was critical of the fact Jamie Charlie, her son, was left in the home for five months after Sherry had been beaten to death by Ryan Dexter George. The boy, then just three years old, was left in a dangerous situation, she said.

"I really don't know what to say about why they left my son there. I really don't,'' Frank said, shaking her head.

According to both Frank and the director's review of the case, Jamie Charlie was also initially blamed for his sister's death by George, who said the boy pushed Sherry down a flight of stairs.

His mother said she never believed the allegations but that the boy was subsequently subjected to months of counselling in Nanaimo and Victoria as a result.

"They allowed my son to be blamed,'' Frank said last week. "They had him going through counselling and therapy because they said he was an abusive child who couldn't be trusted around other children . . .

"They took [George's] word for it and they blamed my son.''

One of Dix's questions also addresses this issue: "Why did the ministry allow the brother to suffer for four months under the continuing lie that he had killed his sister?"

Dix said Wednesday he sent copies of his questions to Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley, ombudsman Howard Kushner and Chief Coroner Terry Smith, each of whom is reviewing government's handling of the Sherry Charlie case.

He has also sent a copy to Judge Thomas Gove, who has been named to a government panel along with Morely and Smith to review the province's reporting of child deaths.

"There has sadly been a pattern of coverup over three years in this case which has led to the six inquiries/reviews [done or being done on Sherry's case.] All of you are playing a role in one or several of these inquiries,'' Dix wrote in a letter to the panel members.

Another question raised by Dix is how the ministry and Usma, the Nuu-chah-nulth child protection agency, could allow Frank's children to be place in the home of an Usma worker. Claudette Lucas, Julia's aunt, had been working at Usma for about a year before the children were placed in the home she shared with George.

"Were there any concerns raised by the ministry about conflict of interest?'' Dix asked.

Children and Family Development Minister Stan Hagen said this week he didn't know if there was a ministerial guideline prohibiting such a situation.

"I'm actually having the staff check into that right now . . I don't know what the policy is but I've asked for a report on it,'' Hagen said.

The Sherry Charlie Tragedy


Charlie tragedy a recurring child-care nightmare

Sherry Charlie
Sherry Charlie is shown in this undated family photo.
(CP/Victoria Times-Colonist/HO)

VICTORIA (CP) - Sherry Charlie could have been the poster child for a government program that places vulnerable aboriginal children with aboriginal families, but her death more than three years ago has become a recurring nightmare for B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell's Liberal government.

The brutal death of the 19-month-old girl who was placed in the home of a relative with a criminal record for violence has Campbell's Liberals facing questions about mismanagement and what role budget cuts played in the tragedy.

Sherry's death has also sparked controversy among aboriginals who find themselves questioning the part played by local bodies.

In September 2002, less than one month after Sherry was sent to live in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, she was dead, the victim of a beating by an uncle.

Ryan Dexter George, 32, was on probation for spousal assault and had a previous record for robbery with violence and arson when Sherry and her brother were placed in the home.

He originally told police Sherry died after her brother pushed her down the stairs. He later admitted to kicking her and slamming her head into the floor because she wouldn't stop crying.

George pleaded guilty to manslaughter in October 2004 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

George had a history of violence, but a full record of his criminal past was not available to Usma, the aboriginal family agency that placed Sherry in the home where she died.

Usma is administered by the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which represents 14 First Nations on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Six reviews into the government's handling of Sherry's case are underway or completed, including investigations by the ombudsman, coroner, government-appointed child and youth officer and the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

Judge Thomas Gove is the latest expert to probe the state of child protection in British Columbia.

Gove was personally recruited by Campbell to become part of a panel that will file a report by the end of this year. Gove's 1995 report into the death of five-year-old Matthew Vaudreuil led to the creation of a separate Children's Ministry in British Columbia.

The Opposition New Democrats accused the government of attempting to cover up the role budget cuts may have played in the circumstances leading to Sherry's death.

The NDP called on the government to reappoint an independent children's commissioner to investigate all child deaths in British Columbia.

The Liberals cut the children's commissioner in 2002, citing a review that found too much duplication between the office, the B.C. Coroner's Service, the child and youth advocate and the ombudsman.

"Now the government is ordering yet another review of a review," said Adrian Dix, NDP children's critic, after Campbell announced Gove's participation.

"This is a government in desperate political trouble on this question. They're acknowledging the failure of their policy over four years, but this isn't good enough yet. They've got to restore the children's commissioner and restore the cuts they made to child protection."

Campbell said the government acknowledges it made mistakes when it comes to child protection, which is why it is reviewing policies.

"We're not trying to protect government. We're trying to protect kids," he said. "As we learn more, we may change the way we do things. It is important to note that we won't ever run a flawless system.

"We do have to look at ways to make sure we get closer and closer to assuring that things like what happened to the child in Port Alberni never happen."

An aboriginal family expert who hails from Sherry's home village on Vancouver Island said her death sends a message of hope and pain to the two levels of government who ultimately failed to protect her: aboriginal and the Liberals.

Sherry is tiny, but her death is huge, said Marlene Atleo, an education professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

"She teaches the system," says Atleo. "It has taught the system what they need to pay attention to, unfortunately. It's illuminated the faults in the system."

Atleo is from the isolated west coast island village of Ahousaht, population about 900 people. It is accessible only by boat or floatplane from the tourism community of Tofino.

Sherry lived in Ahousaht, a one-time prosperous fishing and logging village, but now a community struggling with suicide and unemployment.

Atleo is also the mother of Shawn Atleo, a tribal spokesman who recently delivered a message on behalf of the Nuu-chah-nulth chiefs and elders, who said the constant mention of Sherry's name and publication of her photograph breaks cultural practices of silence surrounding grieving.

The tribal council summoned Stan Hagen, children's minister, and NDP Leader Carole James to a closed meeting at a Port Alberni longhouse last month and requested Sherry's name no longer be mentioned in connection with the case.

The politicians agreed, but James said the NDP will continue to ask questions about Sherry's case without using her name.

Sherry's mother, Julie Frank, who was not invited to the meeting, said she warned Usma not to place Sherry and her son in the home where she died, but nobody listened.

Frank said she wants her daughter's name used in public if it protects other children from Sherry's fate.

"People have customs just like western societies do," said Marlene Atleo. "Every family has their own way of dealing with it, but if it keeps getting torn open then it's pretty hard to allow those processes to be worked through. They need to be worked through in the fabric of the community."

Chief Judith Sayers of the Hupacasath First Nation near Port Alberni said island aboriginals have a tradition of mourning that involves keeping silent about the deceased person for at least one year.

It includes putting away photos and other memorabilia that could bring back memories of the person, she said.

Sayers said the aboriginals are looking for answers in Sherry's case themselves and the request for silence has nothing to do with preventing investigations.

"We certainly aren't trying to hide," she said.

Even though Sherry died more than three years ago, the actual year of silence hasn't really started, said Atleo.

"They haven't had their year of putting it away yet," she said. "The investigations are ongoing in the community. She hasn't been allowed to be laid to rest."

Margaret Anderson, an expert on the customs of B.C.'s north coast aboriginals, said the grieving process among the Tsimshian aboriginals in the Prince Rupert area involves silence for about one year.

She said she doubts the island's Nuu-chah-nulth aboriginals object to the media pursuing aspects of Sherry's death, but they are seeking respect for their traditions.

"They've gone to the trouble to try to educate people that there is a cultural taboo there," said Anderson, of the University of Northern British Columbia in Prince George.

Marlene Atleo said the Nuu-chah-nulth want to examine larger issues surrounding Sherry's death while still respecting her as an individual.

"I don't think they're saying don't talk about Sherry because we want to put it under the carpet," she said. "They're saying we need to look at the bigger picture of what's happening here. What's screwed us up so badly."

Sherry's death is a horror for her family, but it's also a loss for the aboriginal community as a whole, Marlene Atleo said.

"It's like seeing the tree and not seeing the forest," she said. "Sherry is a really really unfortunate victim of a (devolving governing) process where there isn't enough money and there isn't enough communication."

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which has been running many of its health services since 1988, will view Sherry's death as a detour on its path to eventual self government, she said.

"The tragedy is if we don't learn from mistakes."