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First of all we want to thank Stephen Kimber for his ongoing media support concerning some of the issues we have with CAS/ CFS and the government Agency that apprehends children and unjustly destroys innocent families.
More importantly, I am thankful that Mr Kimber is able to see and understand the bigger issues behind these stories - All our families are at risk and we must speak up - we must take a stand. The system is corrupt and we must expose this corruption, if there is any hope of fixing it.
Read this informative 2005 article, Columnist turns activist , on Kimber himself.
When we first started our advocacy work, we got all kinds of excuses from the media for not writing stories criticizing the government concerning Children Services. They ranged from:
“I tried to write a story on these issues before but my editor won’t let me”,
“I wrote a similar story before but I got my knuckles rapped and I won’t do this again”,
“We don‘t have the financial resources to properly research these stories“,
“If the government comes after us we don’t have the financial resources to defend ourselves.“ and
“The government has threatened us that they will take us to court if we publish this.”
Kimber's Articles: (listed in chronological order)
1. Shirley Street Stand-Off May 30, 2004
2. Unanswered questions from the Shirley Street Standoff Aug 15, 2004
3. The crime of being a pain September 19, 2004
4. The taking of Mona Clare... Again September 26, 2004
5. Best interests of the child or Children’s Aid? February 27, 2005
6. Why we need a public inquiry into the taking of Mona Clare May 29, 2005
7. Open Letter to Justice Minister Michael Baker June 07, 2005
8. Potholes litter path to public inquiry July 4th, 2005
9. Justice Minister should know better when it comes to Children's Aid Sunday, July 10, 2005
10. Committee? Check. - Justice? Maybe no Sunday, December 18, 2005
11. Will the province learn Judge Nunn’s lessons? Dec 10, 2006
12. Committee? What committee? : Revisiting the (non) review committee ( web name ) Mar 25, 2007 / Children's Act needs work (newspaper name) March 27/2007
13. Wright and Wrong: Wright the wrong man for the job (web name) / Wrong member on review body : Community Services shows contempt for its own processes (newspaper name) July 5, 2007
14. Police review of standoff: Police learn nothing from standoff (web name) / Little revealed in standoff review (paper name) Aug 2, 2007
15. Shirley Street standoff report revisited : Blacked-out bits raise questions (web name ) / Beneath the black marker: Curiosity uncovers a secret in the Shirley Street standoff review (newspaper name ) Aug 9, 2007
16. Lost Children ( Warning this is a lengthy article) October 25, 2007
17. Community Services Dropped the Ball on This One, July 26, 2010
18. Inquiry needed into childhren’s stories that don’t end well by Stephen Kimber on August 30, 2010
19. Best interests of the child (care system) November 1, 2010
Kimber's Articles: (Listed in legal order - Most recent 1st)
Square brackets[ ] are added notes and comments.
19. Best interests of the child (care system)
November 1, 2010
Remember that Cole Harbour kid who had so many complex emotional issues and acronym-saturated syndromes the province’s community services department decided the only possible solution was to put him in a residential care facility where he could be helped 24 hours a day on a long-term, continuing basis?
And remember there wasn’t such an institution in Nova Scotia. So two years ago community services shipped him off to Bayfield in Ontario.
Recall that his grandparents—who’d raised him since he was a toddler and initially asked community services for help—objected to sending him so far from home. They—horrors—complained to the press and even went to court to force the government to bring him back.
They lost that battle but… well, one bit of sour publicity led to another. There were questions about the efficacy of Bayfield’s treatment approach, and allegations the boy may have been abused. This summer Bayfield washed its hands of the boy and shipped him back to Nova Scotia.
In late September, community services dumped him back on his grandparents with nothing more than a skimpy, page-and-a-half “Service Plan”— part-time/sometime help from a school liaison/tutor, family therapist and alternative youth worker—and good riddance.
But remember. It was community services that initially claimed he had so many issues and syndromes he needed 24 hour continuing care and supervision.
Remember, too, that this boy is still only 15!
It’s difficult not to see his treatment as vindictive payback by miffed community services officials who don’t like having their authority questioned.
Today, the grandparents report the boy’s behaviour is no better and, arguably, worse now than when community services took him two years ago. They’re going back to court to force the department to implement an alternative, community-based, intensive care program developed by Moncton psychologist Dr. Charles Emmyrs and other professionals. But the earliest family court date they can get is December 22nd.
Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse should be embarrassed. And the opposition should be demanding answers—not to mention a public inquiry into whatever happened to what is supposed to be the bedrock of our child welfare legislation: “the best interests of the child.”
Comment: Marilyn Dey:
Community Service workers and bureaucrts do not comprehend the concept of “the best interest of the child”. Their focus is on gathering information to be used as evidence in the court against the parents. The child is left to run through the system with many ending up with a lifetime of criminal justice involvement.
It is time for the general public to be aware that this system is failing children and their families. Children are victimized by the very system put in place to help them. Taking children for no good reason and failing to help those children who need services is criminal. The results of this policy was made clear during the Nunn Commission when it was revealed that Archie Billard got no effective services from the time he was a young boy when child protection first became involved.
Allowing this system to continue with the support of five government departments (community services, justice, education, finance and health) is a blatent disregard for the citizems of Nova Scotia and their children.
Denise Peterson- Rafuse as well as Darrell Dexter should support the call for a public inquiry into the damaging child protection system that is now run under their watch.
18. Inquiry needed into childhren’s stories that don’t end well
by Stephen Kimber on August 30, 2010
I’ve been writing about child protection issues since 2004 when I got interested in the story of a Halifax couple embroiled in a highly publicized, 67-hour, shots-fired standoff with police. The issue: Children’s Aid had seized their five-month old daughter, not because of anything the couple had done to the child—in fact, evidence indicated they were loving, capable parents—but because they’d each been accused of abducting children during acrimonious custody battles in previous relationships.
Their story didn’t end well. The parents ended up in jail. Their daughter disappeared into the often self-serving anonymity of the province’s foster care system.
Then there was the story of the 16-year-old girl whose mental health issues were never addressed in foster or group homes. She ended up in court. The judge ordered the then-minister of community services—the girl’s legal guardian—to explain the mess. The minister never testified [She refused to come to court]. Instead, the case was shuffled to the sidelines.
I caught up with the girl—now 18—last year. She told me she didn’t get any more help after her court case; instead, as soon as she turned 18, she was spit out into the adult welfare system. Good riddens.
Through her, I met a young man who’d been shipped off at the age of 12—against his parents’ wishes—to an Ontario residential treatment centre called Bayfield where he spent five years. Bayfield, he says, didn’t help. Instead, they prescribed drugs: he was on 13 medications at one point. Like the girl, Bayfield and child welfare washed its hands of him as soon as it could. The last I heard, he was living on the streets.
Which brings us to the current case: the 15-year-old Cole Harbour boy who was also sent to Bayfield. He didn’t do well either. Bayfield has now dumped him, but not before squeezing his grandparents/guardians out of his life—leaving the province, which claims it doesn’t have the facilities to treat him, to decide what to do next with him.
Whatever it does with the boy, the province should do something else; call a public inquiry into how we deal with troubled children and families. Something is clearly wrong.
A independent public inquiry into child protection issues is long overdue.This is another case, among many, where a child is harmed by the actions of those whose job it is to help the child. The system does not work and hasn't for years. Too many children are being harmed by the system put in place to help them. If parents and citizens cannot insure that the children of Nova Scotia are protected from harm done to them by government agencies including child protection, mental health services, educational facilities, governemnt contracted agencies and businesses, etc. then the future of society as we know it is in jeopardy. [It is sad to see that the NDP party, after speaking out for years against the corrupt child protection system, has been silent about the problems since they came to power. SHAME ! ! ! They appointed a newbie politician as minister of Community Services while tossing out Trevor Zinck, the only politician who has been brave enough to gather 1st hand knowledge concerning the corruption of Child Services: witnessing newborns being taken away at birth in the hospitals, accompanying parents to their meetings with government legal aid lawyers, witnessing court proceeedings etc etc. Double SHAME on the NDP ! ! ! ! You are not the party of the people. You are as corrupt as all the other previous parties concerning Children Services. You will NOT win the next election! ! ! ! You do NOT deserve to win the next election ! ! ! ! !]
We need a public inquiry into the mess of child protection where innocent children are snatched from their parents for no good reason and those parents who are niave enough to ask for help for troubled children see nothing but further destruction in their children's lives. Responsible parents and citizens, professionals including social workers,lawyers, judges, psychologists, etc.know this business of child protection is not working for the childern of Nova Scotia.
Your call for a public inquiry is welcomed and those in charge need to pay attention, set the wheels in motion and get on with it. Let's see if the governemnt of the day with it's five government departments that are involved have the fortitude to carry through with their promise to help the families of Nova Scotia including the children.
17. Community Services Dropped the Ball on This One
July 26, 2010
Forget duelling interviews, competing psychologists, contradictory studies, even the difference between physically assaulted and “placed in a position of control.”
Ask yourself one question: Is the 15-year-old Cole Harbour boy at the centre of the controversy over his care better off now than when community services shipped him off to Ontario 13 months ago?
A quick recap: The boy, who suffers from a psychiatrist’s brew of disorders, had been raised by his grandparents since he was a toddler. By November 2008, his acting out — running away, stealing cars, doing drugs, selling his body — was so out of control his grandparents agreed to put him in the care of community services.
Instead of treating him here, the province decided he needed secure, long-term facilities it couldn’t provide. Last June, it shipped him off to Ontario’s Bayfield centre.
Is he better off?
According to his grandmother, he’s on heavy doses of drugs, some self-administered (she says Bayfield wants to add lithium to his medical cocktail), he rarely attends classes, and he has been what the reports call “restrained” on at least 10 occasions. Once, he ended up at the hospital. More recently, he claims he was beaten for asking to go to the washroom.
To complicate matters, Bayfield has done its best to cut the boy off from his grandparents, refusing some face-to-face visits, limiting phone calls to two, monitored 15-minute conversations a week and even, at one point, imposing a total contact blackout because the grandmother was “negative” on the phone. How? In one report I saw, the monitor complained she “asked about his medication again, and was more assertive that she did not believe he should just be taking medication whenever he wanted.”
Last week, Vicki Wood, Nova Scotia’s director of child welfare, claimed “we make every effort to maintain the ties” between child and family.
Wood also said: “There’s a forum for the family to bring forward their concerns. That would be the court, not a press conference.”
The problem is Nova Scotia’s family court seems like an extension of community services. [Similarly, Peter Kelly, mayor of Halifax, wanting to distance himself from responsibility in the Finck and VandenElsen’s case informed an advocate that the city police take their directions from Community Services] Community services doesn’t appear willing to consider alternatives to out-of-province institutional treatment.
The boy is not better off.
16. Lost Children
October 25, 2007
When I look at her quizzically, Tina tries and fails at a smile. “I feel like Jesus,” she repeats. “Like I’m going to be crucified.” Her eyes are watery and there is a tremble in her lip. “I’m not going to cry,” she insists, talking as much to herself as to me.
Tina has cause to be concerned. She has already pleaded guilty to making the threatening telephone calls. According to Tina’s version of events, she bought a 375 ml. bottle of vodka on the afternoon of October 17, 2006. Then, back in her apartment, she began drinking while she listened to her favourite song — the Dixie Chicks singing, over and over, “I’m not ready to make nice, I’m not ready to back down” — until, finally, she picked up the phone and began dialing various officials in the provincial department of community services with whom she’d had unhappy dealings over the past months and years. When no one answered — it was already after hours — she began leaving messages. If she didn’t get her daughter back, “you got a war.” If the charges against her daughter weren’t dropped, “be prepared for a fucking war.” It only got worse as the night — and the vodka — disappeared. “You’re going down,” she screamed in one frantic late-night call. “I’m gonna shove a pitchfork up your ass so far it’s gonna come out your fucking throat, you cunt.”
Before the sun rose the next morning, Tina had left 42 different messages.That morning, she made one last call to the home of the family court judge who’d handled the case in which her daughter was made a permanent ward of the department of community services. She told the man who answered the phone: “It’s your fucking wife’s fault for everything what my daughter’s going through, so you tell her that she’s going down too.”
Tina knows she should not have made those calls. She never intended to actually harm anyone, she insists. She was just frustrated and angry at “all the shit” that had happened to her and her daughter.
Tina is not a physically intimidating woman; she’s short — probably not even five-feet-tall — and puffy from too much unhappy life. Today, she looks every one of her hard-lived 37 years. In court, even the prosecutor will concede she has had “a pretty rough life.”
The pre-sentence report prepared for today’s court hearing tells the story of that life — but only part of it. Which is why Tina is worried the judge may make an example of her and send her to jail. “She won’t know why I did it,” she says plaintively.
The daughter of an occasionally employed German-Irish father and a workaholic, abusive French-Canadian-Aboriginal mother, Tina grew up in Orillia, Ontario, in what the probation officer compiling her pre-sentence report has described as a “dysfunctional” family.
“I was abused from the time I was a newborn until I was 15,” she tells me. “Verbally. Physically. Ten lashes with a belt buckle. That was normal. I’d have welts on my arms. I always wore long sleeves to hide the bruises… There was psychological abuse too.”
Twice, Children’s Aid removed Tina and her two sisters from the family home; twice, they returned them. When she was 15, Tina demanded Children’s Aid take her back. “I told them I’d rather be dead than go back home.” She spent the next two years in four or five different foster homes.
She was 15 when she became pregnant the first time. “I wasn’t prepared,” Tina confesses of motherhood. “Angie was colicky. No one told me what to do, so I’d feed her bottle after bottle. I didn’t know how to burp her; I didn’t know that’s what you did with a baby. All I knew was how to change diapers.” Tina stops, becomes almost wistful. “If only they’d helped my parents be better parents,” she says of Children’s Aid, “maybe I’d have known what to do…” She pauses again. “If only they’d helped me.”
Instead, Children’s Aid applied for — and won — permanent custody of Angie. Tina would not see her eldest daughter again for 15 years, not until she re-met her at the funeral of her second child, Albert, who’d died at 14 in a car accident in 2002. Tina had had Albert — by a different father — barely a year after Angie was born. The father got custody of the boy and, Tina says, used threats to keep her from seeing her son.
Though she still dreamed she’d somehow, someday, somewhere meet Mr. Right, Tina’s choices in men didn’t improve. She’s not sure who the father of her third child is.
“I was sleeping around at the time” she says. But she did know she didn’t want any of the possibles as a husband. She wanted more children. Her fourth child, another son, was born a year later. Like her oldest son, his father won custody of him too.
In the six years since she’d left home, Tina had had four children by four different fathers, as well as two miscarriages. Finally, at the urging of the father of the fourth, she had her tubes tied. She was 21.
The only positive thing she had to show for those 21 years was her third child and second daughter, Andrea, of whom she had custody and for whom she insists she wanted only the best.
Tina tried to raise Andrea on her own. But she was also playing hopscotch across the country — from Orillia, to Edmonton, to Vancouver, to Toronto, to Saint John, to Halifax — chasing abusive men and relationships that ended badly for all concerned. Including Andrea. Tina says Andrea witnessed the father of Tina’s fourth child beat her and was in the same room again two years later when Tina’s new husband, Jack, assaulted her.
At one point, Tina decided she couldn’t cope and put Andrea in care in Toronto for 30 days so she could get her life together. Luckily, during that time, Tina won $3,500 at bingo — enough so they could stay in the same apartment for the rest of the year and Andrea could complete an entire school year in the same class.
Finally, in 1997 when Andrea was just six, Tina, her daughter and Jack moved to Nova Scotia. They ended up in a welfare hotel in Dartmouth. Though Tina enrolled Andrea in school and an after-school program, their troubled family life — Tina kicked her husband out of the apartment; he applied for custody of Andrea — soon brought them to the attention of child services workers.
They got a court order that allowed Tina to maintain custody of her daughter, but with conditions: she had to see a therapist, get anger management and marriage counseling, and Andrea needed to be assessed by psychologists at the IWK. Tina agreed to all of those conditions. But she disregarded another order requiring Tina’s husband to stay away from Andrea because, as Tina explains, “DCS was keeping Andrea and her dad apart on purpose, and the courts wouldn’t intervene.”
It all came to a head a few weeks later on Easter Sunday — April 12, 1998 — when Jack arrived at the apartment with a chocolate bunny as well as a stuffed bunny, and offered to take Tina and Andrea for dinner and a movie.
Before that could happen, a police officer and two social workers, who’d been tipped off by hotel personnel to Jack’s arrival, showed up to apprehend Andrea and place her in temporary care.
After that, Tina only got to see her daughter once a week — and only with a police officer stationed outside the room.
Because of ongoing problems in Tina’s marriage, her lack of parenting skills and her history of moving from place to place, a family court judge made Andrea a permanent ward of the province in September 1999.
There was no provision in that order for Tina to see her daughter again. “I honestly didn’t understand any of this and why it happened in the first place,” Tina explains. “I cried real hard.”
Everything that happened to Tina between losing custody of Andrea and the night she made her threatening phone calls — and much did happen — is summarized in one single sentence in Tina’s pre-sentence report: Tina, it says, “has been making application to Family Court for custody and visitations, but has been denied.”
That doesn’t even begin to cover it, and that worries Tina. If the judge doesn’t fully comprehend her ongoing, never-ending war with community services, the judge won’t have a clue why Tina lost it on the night of October 17, 2006.
“Since August 2005,” as the Chronicle Herald report laid out the prosecution’s case against her, “the girl has repeatedly assaulted [group home] workers with her fists and feet and anything she could get her hands on — including a chair and an antenna off a radio. She has also caused property damage and breached court undertakings by ignoring her 11 p.m. curfew.”
Andrea’s lawyer, Megan Longley, told the judge her young client had been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder — multiple personalities — and needed intense, daily psychiatric treatment on a long-term basis. Such treatment isn’t currently available in Nova Scotia. Which meant that Minister Streatch was “the only one who can do anything about the problem. It’s her decision how to allocate resources,” Longley explained.
Perhaps surprisingly, prosecutor Gary Holt agreed. In court, he supported Longley’s application, later explaining to reporters: “We’ve known for a long time in this province that there is a lack of services for youth. And particularly in the psychiatric, psychological situation — in particular a secure treatment centre. We just don’t have one.”
The judge’s unprecedented order and the fact that Holt, a respected veteran youth prosecutor, had publicly agreed with it seemed like — and was — a searing indictment of the failures of the child protection system in the province. Predictably, the news touched off what Holt himself would later concede was a political “firestorm.”
The province’s justice minister, Murray Scott, called Holt’s superiors to complain. Those superiors then ordered Holt back into court to argue the polar opposite of the position he’d taken three just days before.
The judge eventually, seemingly reluctantly, rescinded her original order and allowed the department’s acting director of child welfare and residential services to appear in her stead.
By then, however, the issue was moot. Within days of that first hearing, Andrea had disappeared. It was not the first time. Nor would it be the last.
He’d always been a difficult child. “When you were born,” his mother told him more than once, “you didn’t come with an instruction manual.” Carl was disruptive in school, so his teachers called in his parents. They sought professional help. Doctors diagnosed Carl with ADD, ADHD and an alphabet soup of other disorders and syndromes. The doctors wanted to prescribe pills; Carl’s mother resisted, but relented when they told her she might lose her child.
Ritalin, I ask?
Carl laughs. “I could look in the [pharmacist’s standard reference] book and pick out every damn pill there. I’ve had them all.”
But the pills didn’t help. When he was 12, he warned his parents he was going to “slit your throats while you sleep.” In fact, he did hurt a classmate, which is how he ended up in youth court. His parents were given yet another Hobson’s choice: send Carl to the Nova Scotia youth jail in Shelburne or to Bayfield, “a rural residential treatment facility [in Ontario, offering] care and treatment for boys experiencing difficulties such as conduct disorder, psychiatric disorders and attention deficit disorder.”
His parents were reluctant to let him go so far from home, but opted for Bayfield because they believed Carl might finally get the help he needed there. Which is how he came to be at the airport before dawn on that morning in 1997 meeting the social worker who would accompany him to Bayfield.“We arrived at 11:05 a.m.,” Carl tells me as if the time is proof that what he says happened actually did.
Carl tells me this story as we sit at a table in the middle of the deserted Backpacker’s Café on Gottingen Street on a damp Friday afternoon in mid-April. I had arranged to meet Carl because I hoped he’d lead me to Andrea, whose story was the one I actually wanted to hear. In the six months since she’d been in the media spotlight, Andrea had run away, been caught, run away, been caught, run away again. She’d spent short periods at the youth prison in Waterville and also at the Wood Street Centre, a Truro facility described as “a secure and stable environment for children and youth in the care of the minister who are in-crisis.” Ironically, Wood Street was initially touted as the made-in-Nova-Scotia solution to sending kids like Carl out of province for treatment. But the reality is that Wood Street is what Andrea’s lawyer, Megan Longley, calls a “settling-down place” for troubled teens, and not the long-term treatment facility that’s still needed.
During one of Andrea’s many escapes, she met Carl, who lives by his wiles on the streets. They became friends. The week before I caught up with Carl, he and a few of his friends had attended Andrea’s most recent court appearance — as a show of support. That, indirectly, was how I’d gotten his cell phone number.
“Call me C-C,” he says when we meet. “Everybody does.”
“Crazy Carl. That’s what it stands for.” Today, he is dressed in a T-shirt, ill-fitting jacket and over-sized camouflage pants. His hair is close-cropped, but growing out. You can see the outline where someone had carved symbols of some sort into the hair on the side of his head. He has bad teeth and his eyes are lidded. Medication? Drugs? It’s hard to tell. There are scrapes on his knuckles. From a fight? Impossible to know.
“I have chronic anxiety,” he tells me as if reading a description on a restaurant menu. “I’m out of control. They give me an injection in the rear. It’s supposed to calm you, but it makes me worse.” He stops, considers. “I hate psychiatrists.” Still, he refuses to badmouth his latest one, a doctor at the Abbie Lane Hospital he’s just started seeing. “You have to give him a chance,” he tells me.
Carl has seen more than his share of shrinks. Despite the fact he doesn’t have a high school education, he seems bright, articulate, even self aware, especially when he talks about the child welfare system in which he has spent half his life. “I know the system better than the system knows itself,” he boasts, then confides, “We all put on this glamorous front,” he says of kids like him who’ve grown up in care. “What’s happened to us in the system makes us need to have an edge. That’s why I’m so well spoken,” he explains, answering a question I haven’t yet asked, but planned to. Carl also believes he understands what triggers his own outbursts. “Every year, I seem to have a setback around October, November, December… The sun goes down and it screws up my mood. It goes in a routine pattern.”
He’s still on probation from his last “routine pattern.” While living in a Halifax group home, “they had tuna for lunch and I didn’t want that, so I went to the cupboard to get some Sidekicks to make for myself. They told me I couldn’t cook it.” He shrugs. “It went downhill from there…
“I have severe anger problems,” he concedes. “I lose it over the smallest things. But I knew I had to change after I got charged, so I did. I can control my anger now.”
I look down at his knuckles and wonder.
Still, as I listen, it’s clear Carl believes he has excellent reasons for those “severe anger problems.”
Take the five years he spent at Bayfield. “They put you in these houses, 16 to 20 kids to a house,” he remembers. “And the staff would play favourites: ‘You! In bed at 8… You can stay up until 9.’” Carl, it is obvious, wasn’t one of the favourites.
He claims he once sent seven staff members to hospital during an altercation. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he insists. “I just couldn’t concentrate because of these medications they had me on… psychotropic drugs. At one point, I was on 13 of them. They made me aggressive and paranoid. One day I’m with this teacher and I couldn’t concentrate. The teachers all had these [flash] cards — they go from five, which is great, to zero, which is bad. So when I couldn’t concentrate, the teacher hauls out the card that says, ‘Zero.’ And that’s when I went off…
“They play head games with you.
”During his years in Bayfield, Carl only saw his parents twice. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. In fact, his mother started a support group back in Halifax for more than two dozen other families whose kids had also been sent out of province for treatment because there were no facilities for them in Nova Scotia. The group was called KIN. “There’s a double meaning,” his mother told the Daily News in 1999. “It stands for ‘Kids In Need,’ and ‘kin’ also means family, which is very important as these kids are away from their families, away from those who love them most.”
So why didn’t she visit her own child more often? Scheduled visits to her son in Bayfield, Carl’s mother told the newspaper, were often cancelled at the last minute — staff would tell them “it wasn’t a good time” — and phone conversations were limited.
At the end of the day, Bayfield didn’t help Carl either. They sent him back to Nova Scotia in the winter of 2003. He was 17, and on his own. He wound up as an in-patient at the IWK where he says the doctors finally took him off all his medications. “They were very disappointed [with the treatment he’d received at Bayfield],” Carl tells me. “I was on all these meds and they were all for adults. I was like a Zombie.”
For the past four years, Carl has bounced from program to program, group home to group home, doctor to doctor.
He tells me he first met Andrea last fall at the Alderney Gate library. Homeless kids often use its computers to communicate with one another. “I knew her brother. That’s how I met her. We’d, you know, chill and hang out.”
He doesn’t know where she is now.
But what he’s learned about Andrea’s life story and current problems, he says makes him “scared” for her. “I mean she’s only 16 and she’s caught up in the system and can’t get out. I mean, you know, it’s not good.” He pauses. “I don’t want her to end up like me.”
Carl is only 21 but he talks as if his future is already in his past. It probably is.
1. Get rid of my husband. “I did. We’ve been divorced since 2000.”
2. Upgrade parenting skills. “I did. I took every parenting course possible.”
3. Maintain stability. ”I did. In a 10-year period, I lived at the following addresses (minus Hurricane Juan, that doesn’t count)…”
Tina goes on to list three places she’s lived in nine years while acknowledging that “for a year, I couldn’t find stability.”
The knife-edged sliver of hope her lawyer had offered Tina after Andrea was taken away from her in 1999 was that Tina could regularly reapply for custody, or at least for the chance to see her daughter. Tina did. On five different occasions. Each time, the courts turned down her application. When Andrea was 12, however, officials did allow the girl — who, by that time, hadn’t seen her mother for nearly five years — to write letters to her mother. Andrea did. Thrilled, Tina wrote back as soon as she got them. But her letters, Tina says now, were never delivered.
In February 2005, Tina got a phone of her own after some friends suggested Andrea might look in the phone book to try to contact her. Andrea did. And the two, to the chagrin of Andrea’s social workers, got together.
Tina says Andrea, who was then 14, wanted to move in with her right away, but she discouraged that, urging her daughter to remain in her group home and complete her school year. When she did eventually move in, Tina says she laid down her house rules: “Curfew at 9 p.m.; help keep the house maintained; [and] make future plans for herself.”
Instead of doing what they could to assist Tina and her daughter, who both seemed eager to reunite, officials not only refused to let Andrea have any of her personal belongings from the group home, including her anti-depressant prescription medications, but they also applied to the courts to prevent Tina from having any contact with her daughter and then called in the police to investigate the situation as a kidnapping.
But the same day the police came to question her — Tina tells me Andrea told the officer “she knew her rights and was home of her own accord” — Tina and Andrea had a falling out over a missed curfew. Andrea stormed out. “She went off saying how it was her life, and my life was mine, and therefore to leave her the hell alone.”
Things twisted out of control after that. The courts granted community services the order it had sought to keep mother and daughter apart. So when Andrea changed her mind and contacted her mother again, asking to come back, Tina had to tell her about the court order.
“Well, you may have [an order against you],” Andrea replied, “but I don’t.”
Andrea was soon caught again anyway, and returned to her group home. Whether because of her contact with her mother, or because of what she learned about how community services had tried to keep her from her mother, or simply because she didn’t want to remain in the group home, Andrea’s behaviour suddenly got worse.
Though she’d had minor discipline problems in the past, Andrea had never been charged with a crime until August 2005, soon after being returned from her mother’s. That charge was the first of what would ultimately become the 32 criminal charges — every single one for incidents in and around her group homes — that would bring before Judge Williams.
Just before the 2006 Thanksgiving weekend — and just before Andrea ended up in Williams’ court room — she bolted from her group home once again and showed up at her mother’s door.
“Andrea comes home soaking wet,” Tina recalled of Andrea’s arrival in a rainstorm. “She takes a hot bath, and her and I eat supper and spend the night talking about anything and everything until five in the morning.” This was the kind of mother-daughter relationship Tina had been imagining.
They spent close to a week together. Tina took Andrea to a walk-in clinic so she could get her prescriptions for the anti-depressant Prozac and an anti-schizophrenia drug called Resperdal. She also asked the doctor to give Andrea a pregnancy test. (Community services apparently routinely provides teenaged girls in care with three-month birth-control medication, but Andrea hadn’t gotten her last shot and hadn’t had her a period in almost two months.) Tina also promised she’d “take care of” Andrea’s dissatisfaction with her legal aid lawyer by getting someone else assigned to her case. It made her feel motherly. Tina even said no when Andrea asked if she could attend a weekend party; this time her daughter didn’t object.
Tina was beginning to think their relationship had finally turned a corner. But then, one afternoon, Andrea went to the Alderney Gate library to use the computers and meet some friends. Though Tina was worried the police might find her there, Andrea insisted she would “keep low and out of trouble.” Andrea promised to be home early. Tina said she’d have supper on the table at 7 p.m. Just before four o’clock, Andrea called her mother. The police had picked her up and were taking her to cells. Tina tried to talk to her daughter, but the policeman hung up the phone.
Three days later, Andrea appeared before Judge Pam Williams to face the 32 outstanding charges against her. She pleaded guilty, after which Williams issued her infamous order commanding community services minister Streatch to appear at Andrea’s case conference the following month.
Within days, Andrea disappeared from the group home. Again. And this time she didn’t contact her mother.
Which was how it came to be that Tina, walking home to her apartment that day, began “thinking about the last 10 years” and decided to buy that 375 ml. bottle of vodka.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
She’s short, dark-haired. She wears what look like Value Village rejects — a too-big red shirt and too-long black pants. Her fingernails are painted a glowing red; eyeliner is slathered so thickly along her upper eyelid it seems as if the weight would make it impossible for her to lift them to make eye contact.
“Nice to meet you,” I continue lightly. “Finally! You’re a hard person to track down, you know. Every time I think I’ve found you, you disappear.“
Andrea silences me with a sudden, panicky stop-sign look that is part plea, part command.
It was mid-July, nearly 10 months after her first criminal court appearance. She’d called me this morning from a cell phone. A friend of a friend had passed on my number. I tried to explain why I’d been looking for her, that I wanted to talk with her about her experiences in care and her life with her mother.
“OK,” she’d answered non-committally. Since she was on the lam yet again, we agreed to meet that afternoon at the house where she was crashing. When I arrived, she was waiting just inside the door with a friend.
“Uh, I’ll just go and get my jacket,” the friend says as the awkwardness fills the hallway.
“She doesn’t know,” Andrea whispers urgently as soon as the girl is out of earshot. “Everyone here thinks I left [the group home] voluntarily.”
Since the girl who doesn’t know the real story is accompanying us to a nearby Subway where I am to ask my questions and Andrea — who hasn’t eaten all day — will get something to eat, I realize the conversation I’d planned would be awkward, perhaps impossible.
I steer clear of her latest escapades. Instead, I ask what she remembers of when she initially lived with her mother. “I remember she used to buy me cats,” Andrea says. “And we fed the swans… We moved around a lot too. I remember that.”
How many foster families did she live with after community services took her away from her mother? She counts on her fingers before she answers. “Six or seven. Sackville, Beaverbank, Prospect, Dartmouth… all around.” While some were good — “[one family] took me to Magic Mountain, and Upper Clements [park], and the zoo” — she has more bad than good memories. “In one place, it was like, if you lie, we won’t feed you. One girl, it was, like, 10:30 before she confessed and got her supper… Another place [was so over-crowded] one girl had to sleep in the living room and this other boy, he broke in and bothered her. She called the police but they said there was nothing they could do.”
Most of the foster families she’s lived with couldn’t cope with her. “My behaviour was out of control,” she admits. “I’d throw myself on the ground to get what I wanted.” She shrugs. “I was frustrated, upset, that’s all.”She became even more frustrated after she was moved out of foster care and into group homes. She missed her mother, or at least some idealized memory of her. “I’d think about her all the time,” Andrea tells me. “I tried to find her but she’d keep moving from place to place and I’d never be able to contact her.”
When they finally did make telephone contact when Andrea was 14, Andrea says she immediately made arrangements to meet her mother on Spring Garden Road the next day. “I walked down the street, looking around, and I seen her standing by the Dairy Queen. She smiled, and I guessed it was her right away… It was, like, a really happy feeling. She was my mother, and I hadn’t seen her for so long.”
Her happy feeling didn’t last. And not just because of the predictable difficulties of getting back together after having been apart for so long. During her conversations with her mother, Andrea made two discoveries. She learned that Tina had answered the letters she’d sent her — but no one had let her read them. And she discovered her older brother had died in a car accident two years before, and no one had told her or allowed her to go to his funeral.
“That’s what led to my anger,” she tells me. “That’s when I [first] got charged with assault with a weapon on the social worker.”
And then things got worse. She’s been sent to the Wood Street Centre on five different occasions. She spent last New Year’s Eve there. “It’s like you have to go to bed at 10, 10:30 if it’s a weekend… New Year’s… it doesn’t matter. So [on New Year’s Eve] four of us came out of our rooms at midnight. We just started singing these songs and they told us to stop. They said the songs were ‘inappropriate’.
“You know, like ‘Lock’d up’.”
“Lock’d up, they won’t let me out/ I had a long day in court/ shit stressed me out/ Won’t give me a bill, can’t get me out…/ They won’t let me out/ They won’t let me out/ I’m locked up…”
“So then they come and they escort us back to our rooms. I’m like, ‘Fuck that,’ and I went in the bathroom and I’m on the toilet and I’m sayin’, ‘Come on! Come on and take me out!’ And they do. I kicked a staff member in the face… I got restrained…”
“’Lock’d up,’” she says, isn’t the only song she wasn’t allowed to sing that night. “’Shake your Moneymaker’ too. And we can’t even listen to 50 Cent. They say he’s, like, a bad influence.”
What does she think?
“I think it’s stupid. It’s just a song.”
Does she want to live with her mother again?
Andrea shrugs. “If we had help.”
She thinks for a while. “We don’t even know each other.”
Does she want children?
Yes, she says, but not now. “I’m not ready.” She knows she’ll probably never be allowed to have children. “If I have a child, they’d take it,” she confides.
How does she know that?
What about school, I ask, mostly to change the subject.
“The last grade I passed was 8,” she explains matter of factly. “I failed Grade 9 twice. And Grade 1 too.”
What does she want to be when she grows up,?
“When I was little, I wanted to be a vet. People say I’d be a good lawyer… I like to argue.”
Lawyer? Vet? Does she have a preference?
She shakes her head. “No,” she says. “No preference.”
No, I think. And not much hope either.
It was May 2004. Harawitz and her husband had just returned from a trip to Europe, only to discover that their west-end Halifax neighbourhood had been turned into an armed camp. SWAT police officers blockaded every street. As Harawitz listened while a neighbour explained what was going on — a couple [Larry Finck and Carline VandenElsen] had barricaded themselves inside their nearby Shirley Street house with their infant daughter after the police tried to grab the child in the middle of the night — her first thought was, “How sad.” Her second was the one she verbalized to her husband.
“Perhaps,” she said thoughtfully, ”it’s time to resurrect New Zealand.”
Cheryl Harawitz is a retired a social worker. She’d worked with the Association for Community Living, a group that develops support networks for people with disabilities, and was a former director of Family SOS, an organization that tries to help people on social assistance learn life and parenting skills by pairing them up with peer mentors to help them navigate the tricky shoals of parenthood. So she understood the importance of involving families in dealing with family crises.
Which may be why she remembers being so “visibly excited” at the end of a session on “the New Zealand experience” during a social workers’ conference in Toronto in 1991.
Two years earlier, the New Zealand government had introduced The Children, Young Persons and Their Families Act, revolutionary legislation that transformed the way the state dealt with children and families in crisis. Instead of leaving power in the hands of social workers, police, judges and bureaucrats, who had traditionally determined — arbitrarily and on their own —the best interests of the child, the new law put that power into the hands of the families themselves.
When a child was deemed to be in need of protection, the first step was to convene a “family group conference.” Family members, often including extended family, neighbours and others interested in the welfare of the child, would meet with experts —medical professionals, police officers, protective services workers, therapists, teachers and others — to discuss possible options for the child’s care. After that, the family would meet alone and come up with a consensus plan, which it would then present to the child’s caseworker. If that plan didn’t work, there would be another conference and another plan.
As dramatically different — and unwieldy — as it sounds, the system worked. The number of children in foster care and other institutions fell by 90 per cent. Fewer young people ended up in court.
New Zealand youth court Judge Mick Brown, who’d initially thought it was “absurd to expect all families — simply by a stroke of the legislative pen — to suddenly become mature decision makers,” became a convert.
“What amazes me,” he said, “is how often family groups, with input from police and victims, are achieving creative and constructive outcomes.”
In the years since it was introduced, the New Zealand model has been adopted or adapted — usually with great success — all over the world. But not in Nova Scotia. Cheryl Harawitz tried. She returned home from that 1991 conference eager to bring the New Zealand model to Nova Scotia. But there were a number of problems. For starters, the Nova Scotia government had just passed its own Children and Family Services Act, and wasn’t about to tinker with what it believed was good legislation. There was also resistance from many social workers who believed implementing such a scheme would just add to their already burdensome workload. But Harawitz was relentless. She got $30,000 from the attorney general’s office to bring experts from New Zealand — including the police officer who’d spoken at the Toronto conference — to talk with Nova Scotia police officers, judges, child protection workers, health and social welfare professionals, academics and, of course, senior government officials to explain just how — and how well — the system worked.
She formed a steering committee, wrote a report and — with letters of support from everyone from the then-Halifax police chief to a judge — put together a tentative proposal for a three-year, $200,000 project to demonstrate the idea’s possibilities. She’d even discovered a pot of leftover money in the provincial budget she could use to pay for it.
“And then,” she says simply, “the government changed.”
The new Hamm government had other uses for that money. And other priorities that did not include changes to child welfare.
Though Harawitz fought the good fight for two more years — “This was my passion; I knew it would work” — she eventually “burned out.” In August 1995, she decided to take a year off and help out in her husband’s software business. That year turned nearly a decade. And then retirement.
She’d slipped nicely into retirement mode, in fact, when the end result of the Shirley Street standoff (criminal charges and jail for the parents, foster care and the destruction of her biological family for the child) reinforced her belief that events might have played out differently — and better for all concerned — if Nova Scotia had implemented the New Zealand model. So she threw herself back into the fray one last time.
In 2005, she thought she’d convinced the federal Liberals to fund a pilot project but then “there was another change of government,” this time to Stephen Harper, and it didn’t happen.
So she applied to serve on a controversial provincial review committee that’s supposed to advise the community services minister on how our current legislation is working and to recommend changes. The reality, of course, was that, on a scale of one to 10, the government’s real interest in that legislatively-mandated committee ranged from zero to none. For five years, it hadn’t even bothered to appoint members to serve on the committee until two determined women, a grandmother and a mother [Linda Youngson and Marilyn Dey] took the department to court in 2005 to force it to live up to its own Act. But then it [the government] stacked the committee with bureaucrats who had a vested interest in the status quo.
Despite that, Harawitz — perhaps because of her social worker’s background and her outwardly genteel manner — managed to get herself not only appointed to the committee but also named its chair.
Though the committee has yet to file its first report since 1999 — “I’m preparing drafts of sections now for critique by the other members of the committee” — Harawitz says she’s been “encouraged” by other members’ openness to at least considering new ideas.
She’s already made one presentation to the committee on the New Zealand model. There was some positive feedback, she says, but concerns too that such an approach “wouldn’t work in our culture” or “for the families we’re dealing with.”
Harawitz doesn’t buy that. “It’s worked in England. It’s worked in Australia. It’s worked in Washington State. It’s worked in Texas… If you can think outside the box in child protection, you open up some amazing possibilities.”
She’s already warned the other members of the committee she intends to raise her New Zealand flag again before it finalizes its report and she remains hopeful there will, finally, be a pilot project in Nova Scotia to test just how different the system — and the results — might be.
Would it made a difference for Tina, and Andrea, and Carl, I want to know?
“Oh, absolutely,” Harawitz says without hesitation. “Right now social workers work inside a bubble. They only see the immediate family and its problems. And they only see the solutions they expect to see.”Which, it’s all too clear, are not solutions at all.
While making the point that Tina had dealt with her “frustration… in an inappropriate and illegal way,” Murphy acknowledged she had had a “very difficult life in many respects,” and accepted the crown’s recommendation Tina be placed on probation for 18-24 months, complete 40 hours of community service and have no contact with close to a dozen social workers or anyone at community services except through a lawyer.
Before formally sentencing her, Judge Murphy asked Tina if she had anything to say for herself.
“I’ve learned,” she said simply.
But what has she learned? That the system didn’t work for her — and that it hasn’t from the day she was born.
Now that her court case is finally over, Tina tells me she’s thinking of moving to Ontario and trying to make a fresh start. She talks vaguely of finding a lawyer there, of launching a class action suit on behalf of all the people whose lives have been made worse and not better by the system that was supposed to protect them. Like herself. And like Andrea as well.
As it did with Carl when he was cut loose from Bayfield at 17 and left to fend for himself, the system has now essentially given up on Andrea.
In 1999, the department of community services, with the approval of the courts, took Andrea from her mother because it claimed it knew better how to raise her. Now, eight years later — without publicly saying so — community services is acknowledging that it didn’t, and doesn’t, know any better.
During an August court appearance to deal with still more charges that Andrea had broken still more curfews, Andrea’s lawyer, Megan Longley, told the judge the department was threatening to rescind Andrea’s permanent care order because she’d failed to follow the programs it had laid out for her and continued to get in trouble with the law. Which meant she would never get the long-term care everyone had claimed she needed.
Judge Pam Williams’ frustrations were obvious. “It’s another example of the criminal justice system and the child welfare system coming at each other like two freight trains,” she declared, without stating the obvious — that both of those trains were making straight for Andrea as well as each other.
Because Andrea’s latest “crimes” were simply that she had violated the conditions — abiding by a 9 p.m. curfew and living in the group home — from her earlier probation order, Williams rescinded those conditions. “[The] sooner we can get you out of the [justice] system the better,” she told Andrea. But she urged Andrea not to give up on the programs community services was offering her. “You’re very vulnerable,” Williams told her, adding that she’d have no place to live, no money and no prospects if she was on her own.
Andrea was undaunted. “I’d rather be out of the [community services] system,” she told Williams.
And now, apparently, she is. Last week, according to the friend of a friend who’d initially put me in touch with Andrea, she’s living on her own in the same place where I met her back in July. She’s telling everyone she’s finished with community services and it’s finished with her. This time, it seems, she’s telling the truth.
Stephen Kimber is The Coast’s Senior Features Writer. He teaches journalism at the University of King’s College
15. Shirley Street standoff report revisited : Blacked-out bits raise questions / Curiosity uncovers a secret in the Shirley Street standoff review
Aug 9, 2007
By Stephen Kimber
“Satiable curiosity,” as Kipling called it, is one of the peculiar traits of the journalist. I have spent more hours than I can count — or should admit to — trying to decipher the usually meaningless upside-down writing on the desks of people I am interviewing. Or listening in on banal conversations to which I am not a party.
Which may explain how I came to be hunched over a spotlight last week, squinting, trying to make out what was hidden beneath the black felt-markered-out sections of the copy of the Halifax Regional Police Operational Review of the Shirley Street standoff.
Last week, I wrote about what was in the publicly released portion of that much delayed report I had received through a Freedom of Information request. It focused on the police department’s role in a controversial May 2004 incident in which heavily armed police used a battering ram to smash their way into a Halifax home in the middle of the night to execute a Children’s Aid apprehension order for an infant.
This week, I want to talk about the parts I wasn’t supposed to see.
To be fair, the police only blacked out three small sections of the 16-page report. In his cover letter to me, Deputy Chief Tony Burbridge cited two sections of the Protection of Privacy and Freedom of Information Act to justify what he described as the “severed parts of the record.” The first was that disclosing the information “would be reasonably be expected to harm law enforcement and harm the effectiveness of investigative techniques or procedures…” The second was that the information “would be an unreasonable invasion of a third party’s personal privacy.”
So, of course, I peeked. And peered. And stared. And held the documents up to the light to see what, if anything, they might reveal.
I was unable to decipher anything from two of the excisions, which were among a catalogue of what the report described as “numerous tactics… utilized in attempting to reach a successful resolution of the incident.”
But the third blacked-out section — about an incident before the stand-off when the police were still trying to find out where Carline VandenElsen had disappeared to with her baby daughter — turned out to be at least partially readable.
In the chronology, the incident occurs sometime between Feb. 23, when a Det/Cst. Webber contacted a Children’s Aid official to update her on the progress of the investigation, and Feb, 26, 2004, just three days later, when Larry Finck, the father of the little girl and husband of Carline, came to police headquarters asking to lay a complaint against Children’s Aid “for conspiracy in the abduction of his child.”
Which means that the subject of this blacked-out section occurred more than a month after police first unsuccessfully tried to enforce the apprehension order and almost two full months before police attempts to seize the child touched off a three-day SWAT team siege at the Finck home.
Here’s what I can read: “Det/Cst. Webber met with Senior Crown Attorney Frank Hoskins to discuss proceeding with —“ which is followed by a few words I can’t read — “He advised that there were insufficient grounds at this time to support prosecution. Barbara MacPherson of Children’s Aid was advised of this decision.”
Which raises an interesting question.
How does this information match up with the department’s stated explanations for refusing to disclose this particular section to me?
Surely, consulting with a Senior Crown on whether there are grounds to lay charges is commonplace police procedure, hardly the sort of top-secret investigative technique the Act is supposed to allow police to keep confidential.
As for violating the privacy rights of a third party, the fact is that both the cop and Barbara MacPherson, a CAS case worker, are already identified in several sections of the report released to me. And Frank Hoskins is a public official acting in a public capacity.
So which of the stated exemptions applies in this case?
If neither do — and it appears they don’t — then why did the police decide to try to keep this small section of the report from my prying eyes?
Could it be that they simply didn’t want to publicly admit there were no grounds to lay charges against anyone in this case until police officers banged on the door in the middle of the night of May 19 and turned a family matter into a criminal case that changed the lives of all of those involved?
And what does that say about the police department’s commitment to openness and transparency?
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. In 2004, he was a member of an ad hoc citizen’s group that campaigned unsuccessfully for a public inquiry into this case. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.
14. Police learn nothing from standoff
Aug 2, 2007
By Stephen Kimber
The Halifax Regional Police learned nothing from 2004’s costly three-day Shirley Street standoff — because there was nothing for them to learn. They did everything right.
That, at least, is the pre-determined conclusion of the department’s self-serving, butt-covering, two-years-in-the-making, 16-page internal review of “Incident Number 04-21470.”
That is the blandly bureaucratic designation for the infamous case in which police bungled efforts to execute a Children’s Aid Society apprehension order to seize the infant daughter of Larry Finck and Carline VandenElsen. That quickly escalated into a 67-hour siege, complete with barricaded suspects, a shot fired, deployment of a heavily-armed SWAT team, the evacuation of a Halifax neighbourhood, the natural-causes death of Finck’s mother [The grandmother, Mona Finck, died of a heart attack. Since when is a heart attack a "natural cause"?] who was inside the house at the time, prison terms for both VandenElsen and Finck and the end of any hope their infant daughter might have had for a normal family life.
One hopes the reason the police didn’t release the report’s findings publicly themselves — I had to get my only slightly blacked-out copy through a Freedom of Information application — is because they’re embarrassed by it.
Though the report deals with, or, more accurately, dismisses questions about the entire chain of events — from the department’s initial attempt on Jan. 15, 2004 to execute a court order to take the infant into protective custody to the moment the child was finally grabbed on May 21, 2004 — let’s look today only at the critical decisions police officers made on the night of May 19. Those were the ones that turned what should have been a routine custody matter into a matter of life and death.
Having heard rumours that VandenElsen — who’d disappeared with her daughter around the time of the initial court order — had been spotted back in Halifax in the company of Finck in the criminal act of “pushing a baby stroller in the area of Vernon and Shirley Street,” the police immediately mounted a full-scale, drug-style surveillance operation.
Early that evening, they followed the couple to a Wal-Mart and watched as they clandestinely “purchased baby supplies.” After shadowing the dangerous duo back to their Shirley Street address with their fresh-bought diapers, one of the officers peeked in a window and saw Finck with “an infant he assumed” to be their daughter.
One assumes, though the report doesn’t say so, that the infant did not appear to be in mortal danger from her father at the time.
At that point — after 10:30 at night — police officers made the fateful decision to snatch the child immediately rather than wait for morning, or for the couple — who seemed blissfully unaware police were on to them — to leave the house again.
Why not wait? There is no evidence the child — supposedly the reason for all of this — was in immediate danger.
Was it a budgetary decision? Did police gamble a swift snatch-and-grab would be cheaper than the hard slog of continuing surveillance and safe apprehension? If so, they blew it badly.
The report never really addresses those questions, though it does attempt to justify the fact senior officers dispatched three uniformed police to pound on the door at 12:34 a.m.
Finck and VandenElsen, the report says, “were known to be violent towards police.”
While that makes an even more compelling argument for caution, we need to ask on what basis the police determined this. The report offers no backup for its assertion.
VandenElsen, it’s true, had been charged with abducting her children from a previous marriage, but a jury had acquitted her in that case. An appeals court had ordered a new trial, but it hadn’t yet taken place. There’s no evidence I’ve seen she was ever violent toward police.
As for Finck, he’d served two years for kidnapping a daughter from a previous relationship and was certainly well known to challenge authority. [The mother of this child was dead and was in the custody of an Uncle whom Larry believed was assaulting his daughter] Did he have a history of actual violence against police? Not that I’m aware of.
The reality, as police know all too well, is that custody cases are emotional and volatile. That’s why prudent decision-making is vital to prevent an incident from escalating out of control.
The report claims police officers “do not have discretion” in enforcing apprehension orders, which is, of course, ludicrous. While they may not have a choice in whether to enforce an order, they have lots of leeway in how to do it.
Police decisions in this case led to an expensive, disruptive standoff, criminal convictions for two people who wanted nothing more than to raise their child and the total destruction, beyond repair, of a family — and yet the report claims there are no lessons to be learned.
Perhaps we will only begin to learn those lessons after a police officer — or a baby — is dead.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. In 2004, he was a member of an ad hoc citizen’s group that campaigned unsuccessfully for a public inquiry into this case. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.
13. Wright the wrong man for the job
July 5, 2007
By Stephen Kimber
If you want to begin to understand the utter disdain Nova Scotia’s department of community services has for its own legislation — and for the people it is supposed to serve — consider its recent appointment of Robert Wright to the committee that is supposed to review the province’s Children and Family Services Act.
Wright is a senior community services bureaucrat, a former director of Cumberland County family and children’s services and executive director of the department’s recently announced youth strategy and services.
Incredibly, however, Wright has been named to the review committee as one of two persons “whose children have been, are or may be in need of protective services...” (italics very definitely mine).
When the Nova Scotia Family and Children’s Services Act was introduced in 1990, it was hailed as a progressive piece of legislation, but even its framers understood the act would need to be reviewed regularly to make sure it was still working to — in the words of the act — “protect children from harm, promote the integrity of the family and assure the best interests of children.”
Which is why the legislation required the minister to “establish an advisory committee whose function is to review annually the provisions of this act and the services relating thereto and to report annually to the minister concerning the operation of the act and whether the principles and purpose of the act are being achieved.”
The 10-member committee was supposed to represent all the key players in the child protection system, including not only agency representatives, legal aid workers and other insiders but also — specifically — two people whose experience was from the receiving end of child protective services.
Wright, whatever his many other sterling qualities, should not be a “parent” representative on this committee. (A government spokesperson says she can’t say what Wright’s specific qualifications are for the post “as it would be a breach of confidentiality,” noting only that the legislature’s toothless human resources committee appointed Mr. Wright.)
Regardless, the fact is he is an insider. He can’t help but represent — and be seen to be representing — the government’s vested interest in the review process. A government spokesperson claims the department sought “legal advice” before it appointed him; I’d love to see the verbal gymnastics involved in justifying that leap of lizardly legal logic!
The unhappy truth is that Wright’s appointment merely continues the pattern of cavalier contempt the department has shown for its own process.
[This contempt was also evident when Linda Youngson and Marilyn Dey took the Minister to court to force the Minister to appoint this committee as specified in section 88 of the Act itself. The sole arguement the government brought to the court was that "The Crown only owed it's duty to the Crown" and that individual citizens like Youngson and Dey did not have the right to bring the government to court to obey its own laws ! - Thank goodness, the Justice did not agree! ]
Between 1999 and 2005 [correction: 1996-2005] , this government didn’t even bother to appoint a review committee. It only reluctantly did so after two determined women [Youngson and Dey] — who’d had their own unhappy experiences with the system — took the minister to court two years ago.
After Supreme Court Justice Hilary Nathanson ordered the department to belatedly live up to its legal obligations, the then-minister, David Morse [Minister of Community Services], did his best to sabotage the ruling’s intent.
The legislation calls for the appointment of “two persons drawn from the cultural, racial or linguistic minority communities” in order to bring other perspectives to the table. Morse instead appointed two Children’s Aid Society staff members who, only incidentally, happened to come from those communities.
Morse named a personal friend as the first parent member on the committee. (The government, of course, wouldn’t even consider applications from the two women [Youngson and Dey] who’d taken the government to court and won; they clearly were too interested in the system’s workings. The department claims it’s still looking to fill the other parent vacancy on its committee.)
And now, thanks largely to the government’s ongoing efforts of hobble its work — delaying appointing new members to replace those who have resigned or whose terms have expired, naming people like Wright who clearly don’t belong — the committee is in a shambles. It still hasn’t even filed its last annual report, which would have been only the first since the courts ordered it to act.
None of this is intended as a knock on Robert Wright’s qualifications to serve as executive director of the new youth strategy the government has set up in response to the Nunn Commission report. Or even to suggest he could not represent the minister’s interests on the review committee; there are slots for that too.
But he cannot — and should not pretend to — represent the interests of those on the receiving end of the system.
If the minister doesn’t revoke his appointment, Wright should do the honourable thing and resign himself.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.
By Stephen Kimber The Daily News
Release Date: March 27/2007 ?
If my e-mail inbox is any indication, there are plenty of Nova Scotians who have serious concerns with this province's Children's and Family Services Act.
Back in 2004, there was a dramatic three-day standoff between a Halifax police SWAT team and parents Carline VandenElsen and Larry Finck over the Children's Aid Society's decision to seize their infant daughter.
Troubled by what I believed were too many questions about that incident, I joined an ad hoc group that lobbied, unsuccessfully, for a public inquiry into what led up to the siege.
Probably because of that, I still frequently get letters and e-mails from people who believe they and their children, or their grandchildren, have been ill-used by the system, especially provisions of the act that allow social workers to seize children they believe need protection.
Some of their stories are heart-wrenching, and frustrating, too, because there often seems little anyone can do to challenge what's happened.
They're not the only ones with concerns about this province's child-services system.
Last fall, a Halifax judge publicly threatened to haul Community Services Minister Judy Streatch into court to explain what her department was doing to help a troubled 16-year old girl in provincial care. The judge backed off, but the problem hasn't gone away.
There are no easy answers when you're trying to find the appropriate balance among the act's three, sometimes competing, purposes: "protect children from harm, promote the integrity of the family and assure the best interests of children."
For every tale of the seemingly arbitrary snatching of a child - like the Finck-VandenElsen case - there are equally troubling stories of children who should have been taken from their parents, and weren't.
And then, too, there are the horror stories of children abused in the very foster care that was supposed to protect them.
Which is one reason our Children's and Family Services Act includes a specific provision requiring the minister to appoint an advisory committee of people actually involved in the system - including "two persons whose children have been, are, or may be in need of, protective services" - to review the act each year, recommend changes and report back to the minister.
Everything you need to know about this government's lack of interest in child welfare is in the unhappy history of this committee.
There wasn't even a ["annual'] committee - let alone an annual review of the department's most important piece of legislation - between 1999 [correction 1993] and 2005.
That only finally, sort of, changed after Marilyn Dey and Linda Youngson - two women with unhappy personal experiences of the system - took the government to court in June 2005 to embarrass it into doing what its own legislation says it must do.
Unfortunately, this government doesn't embarrass easily.
Supreme Court Justice Hilary Nathanson finally ordered the department to appoint the committee in December 2005.
The department then did its best to sabotage the process. It appointed Children's Aid Society staff members to community positions reserved for francophone and minority groups, and named a friend of the then-minister to fill one of the parent positions. (Dey and Youngson applied; the government ignored them.)
The committee didn't get working until April last year.
Though it held hearings last fall, during which more than 30 groups [and individuals] made presentations, the committee eventually collapsed [?] when three of its seven designated members resigned or reached the end of their terms, and were not replaced. (One of the problems with the act is that committee members are only appointed for one-year terms.)
The committee had to cancel one scheduled meeting in January and was forced to turn its February session into an informal discussion because only two advisory committee members were present.
[This was a concern to two women, Linda Youngson and Thelma Gilespie who were scheduled to make presentations that day - They demanded and got a re-presentation date (they were rescheduled for June 2007) . However on this rescheduled date, they were still not given the respect of a quorum - in part because THERE HAS NOT BEEN A LEGAL COMMITTEE SINCE DECEMBER 2006 because all the members specified in the CFS Act that must be appointed to have a legal committee have NOT been on this committee since this date ]
"Am I frustrated?" asks Cheryl Harawitz, the veteran social worker and child-welfare advocate who chairs the advisory committee. "I guess I'm so used to working with bureaucracies that I don't let myself get frustrated."
This week, she finally got word from the minister that two of the committee vacancies are being filled, enough to allow the committee to at least meet. "We'll get things rolling again," Harawitz says.
So when will the committee report? Well, of course, it will take time for the new members to get up to speed and digest the reports and presentations already made.
By the end of October, Harawitz hopes.
And that, of course, is for the report that was supposed to be filed by the end of last year.
And so it goes.
[When Linda Youngson and Thelma Gilespie made their re-presentations in June, they heard excuses from several members of the committee for why they were NOT obligated to submit a public report as this committee did in 1993 and 1996. This was totally contrary to the information they were given by the 2 member committee they met with in February ! After their original presentations (Youngson had brought this very concern up in her presentation0 to this meger committee) they were assured that there would a public report.]
Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King's College, is an award-winning author of five nonfiction books and a novel,
11. Will the province learn Judge Nunn’s lessons?
Dec 10, 2006
By Stephen Kimber
To his credit, Justice Minister Murray Scott got it right. "I can't go back," he conceded in his first response to the release last week of Merlin Nunn’s report into the death of Theresa McAvoy. "I can only go ahead." But, he added with apparent sincerity, “we want to learn from this.”
His boss, on the other hand, clearly hadn't read -- or at least didn’t bother to think about -- the broader implications of the retired Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge’s comprehensive and far-reaching investigation.
"When you take a look at the issues that the Conservative government in Ottawa have been putting forward,” Premier Rodney MacDonald explained to reporters in his usual obscure way, “they've been very much in support of being stronger in that regard, so I applaud them." He kept his focus pinpoint-narrow on the Stephen-Harper, get-tough-on-crime, right-wing-agenda aspects of Judge Nunn’s report and blithely ignored a more important reality that was equally well-documented in the judge's exhaustive 381-page report and its 34 separate recommendations. The best — perhaps only — way to avoid future tragedies like Theresa McEvoy’s death is to deal with the root causes of youth crime before more young people "spiral out of control" like Archie Billard.
I don't mean to suggest here that those recommendations in the judge’s report that deal directly with protecting the public from dangerous young people are not important, or necessary. As Nunn makes clear, Ottawa needs to change the Youth Criminal Justice Act to broaden the definition of violent offenses and find ways to keep comparatively few, but potentially lethal young offenders off the streets while they await trial. And we need to streamline the legal process to make it much more efficient and effective in order to prevent exactly the kind of calamitous bureaucratic and technological breakdowns that blotted this case.
Nova Scotians, as Premier McDonald rightly pointed out, "want to know that the youth that are causing problems in our society... are being dealt with effectively, and that our judges and others have the powers necessary to deal with these issues."
That’s the easy part.
If, however, that is the only message the government takes from Justice Nunn's report, all his broader efforts — 23 volumes’ worth — will have been for nothing.
It is clear from Nunn’s report that Archie Billard’s life had spiraled out of control long before October 14, 2004, the day he got stoned, stole a Chrysler LeBaron and smashed it head-on into a car driven by McAvoy. The 52-year-old teacher’s aide and mother of three boys was killed instantly.
The province’s swift, knee-jerk decision to that tragedy — appoint Judge Nunn to conduct an inquiry — seemed, at first blush, little more than the political game of pin-the-blame-on-someone. There was widespread community outrage that Billard -- who was already facing numerous charges in connection with earlier joyriding incidents -- was not in jail at the time of the crash. So someone must pay.
To his credit, Nunn refused to take that easy route. And, instead of starting his inquiry at the point where Archie Billard first smacked up against the youth criminal justice system, Nunn unraveled that particularly messy ball of string backwards to show how and why Billard had ended up in trouble in the first place. His report clearly demonstrates that what happened in this case was “a system failure” that goes far beyond naming names and will require us, as a society, to accept collective responsibility for changing the conditions that create Archie Billards.
Nunn’s most important larger-picture recommendations, in fact, have to do with creating a comprehensive provincial strategy — managed by senior officials from community services, health, education and justice — to find ways to help youth at risk before the risk becomes criminal reality.
It won’t be easy. And success won’t come cheap. As regional school board spokesperson Doug Hadley pointed out, the judge’s recommendation that schools establish facilities for in-school suspensions, to take just one example, will mean not only finding physical space, hiring more bodies and creating new programs but also finding a way to balance those new demands with “the needs of the entire school population.”
Implementing all of Judge Nunn’s 34 recommendations will be a daunting and expensive but critically important task, and one that won’t be made easier when our premier — the person who should be showing leadership on the issue — doesn’t appear to even understand what the issues are.
Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books and one novel.
By Stephen Kimber
The Daily News Sunday,
December 18, 2005
Graham Steele was frustrated. One of his constituents, a woman named Marilyn Dey, had come to him almost two years before, to ask for his help with a child custody case. But she'd buried the NDP MLA under the weight of so many documents and so much information - not just about her own case, but the cases of others she knew who were experiencing similar problems with the province's child welfare services - Steele was overwhelmed.
To complicate matters, she'd not only drawn connections among all those cases, but also tied them together with the intricate strands of any number of conspiracy theories to explain the why of the what.
Steele had tried to tell her he wasn't an investigator or a policeman, that neither he nor his colleagues had the resources or the authority to do the kind of investigations she wanted.
Which was why he was relieved earlier this year when Dey mentioned in passing that she'd discovered [Actually it was Linda Youngson] that an independent committee the government was supposed to appoint each year - to review how the child welfare act was working - had not been operational for at least three years.
"Now that," he said, "I can help you with."
Trading in his MLA's podium for his lawyer's briefs, Steele filed an application [as lawyer for his clients Linda Youngson and Marilyn Dey] with the courts to force the minister of community services, David Morse, to appoint the review committee.
Last week, Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Hilroy Nathanson wasted little time in dismissing the government's dissembling justifications for inaction and ordered the minister to do it by the end of this month.
The fact is that the government - perhaps recognizing the ridiculousness of its own arguments - had already finally, belatedly, reluctantly begun naming people to serve on the 10-person committee."
When we filed the court papers June 27," Steel says, "they had appointed zero members."
By the time court convened at 11 a.m. on Dec. 13, nine of the 10 members of the review committee were in place, the last two named just two hours before the hearing.
While Steele says he personally knows some of those appointed to the committee "and they'll be fine," he noted that the appointment process itself "left a great deal to be desired."
By law, the committee's membership is supposed to include one representative each of the minister and a child welfare agency, a legal aid lawyer, two members from the province's "cultural, racial or linguistic minority communities" and - most importantly - "two persons whose children have been, are or may be in need of protective services."
The government pointedly dismissed applications from Dey and another woman, Linda Youngson, the second complainant in Steele's application, who wanted to serve as parent representatives.
And it ignored other individuals who'd volunteered to serve after reading about Steele's court application.
At the same time, the government courted others to come forward, even doing the paperwork for a least one nominee.
The two names they initially put forward as minority representatives, in fact, turned out to be employees of the Children's Aid Society, the agency whose actions are most likely to be criticized. Talk about stacking the deck!
But the key appointees remain those two parent representatives. "The aim of the people who set this up," says Steele, was that those on the "receiving end of the system" be strongly represented on the committee.
So who has Morse named?
The man chosen to fill one of those two positions is Timothy Van Zoost, who ran provincially for the Conservatives a few elections ago. His qualification is that one of his children was in care before he adopted her. While that technically fits the criteria, it sure as hell doesn't give Van Zoost experience with having his child taken away from him, or with trying to get her back.
There is still one vacancy for a parent representative on the committee, one last chance for David Morse to get it right. Based on his track record, don't hold your breath.
Even after it is finally in place, however, it's worth asking what the committee can actually do. Can it look into the dozens of complaints from people like Dey about how [this was missing in printer article]
Can it go back to the spring of 2004 and finally conduct a real review of the controversial CAS seizure of Larry Finck's and Carline VandenElsen's infant daughter?
Steele says it can."It's supposed to be an independent committee," he explains. "The question is whether it will be willing to ask the tough questions. "
He pauses. "The fact is there is no other forum for these discussions. The committee is the only hope for those people who want answers to their questions."All of us should be watching to see what happens.
Stephen Kimber is a member of the MCF Inquiry Committee, a community group pushing for a public inquiry into the seizure of Larry Finck and Carline VandenElsen's baby.
By Stephen Kimber
The Daily News Sunday, July 10, 2005
Justice Minister Michael Baker is no stranger to controversies over child protection in Nova Scotia.
Which may explain his reluctance to call a public inquiry into last year's Family Court decision to order the Halifax Children's Aid Society to seize the daughter of Larry Finck and Carline VandenElsen, despite a lack of evidence the infant was at risk.
Baker, a South Shore lawyer before becoming an MLA, served a good-works apprenticeship in the decade or so before he was first elected to the legislature in 1998.
He was vice-chairman of the Lunenburg County Regional Housing Authority, president of the Lunenburg Academy Foundation and - from 1992 to 1995 - a member of the board of Family and Children's Services of Lunenburg County (FCS), "a non-profit child-welfare agency dedicated to the protection of children from abuse and neglect."
In 1994, the Liberal government of the day appointed two Ontario social workers to conduct an independent review of the operations of that same Lunenburg FCS - the equivalent of Halifax's Children's Aid Society - following two shocking incidents in which FCS officials appeared to be the ones perpetrating the abuse and neglect.
In the first case, a five-week-old baby was shaken to death in 1993, three weeks after child-protection workers had received warnings the baby was being abused.
In the second the [Debra Stevens case] , workers at the agency had ignored complaints that children, in what the agency proudly described as a "very good" foster home, were being sexually abused. FCS actually continued to place children - 20 in all - with the family, even after learning of the allegations. It wasn't until five years after the first complaints that the foster father was finally found guilty - no thanks to FCS - of sexually abusing four youngsters in his care.
In truth, the review of the Lunenburg FCS only happened - three years after the guilty verdict - because Debra Stevens refused to go away. [see a synopsis of this case of this case at this hyperlink]
A single mother who'd been talked into turning her two sons over to children's services in 1985, Stevens became suspicious about the foster home into which her two sons had been adopted, and refused to stop asking questions.
The Family and Children's Services Agency initially ignored her complaints, or dismissed her as a "nuisance" - remind you of anyone, Mr. Minister? - and described her as a "social climber (who) went into a song and dance about being a single parent." The first social worker she dealt with reported that "Hopefully, (Stevens) got the message, as it was obvious that she appeared guilty."
Guilty of what? Caring about her children?
The outside reviewers the province finally appointed to look into what had gone wrong in that and the shaken-baby case concluded - in the words of a simple but telling precis offered by then-community services minister Jim Smith - "the system failed Debra and her family."
Incredibly, when Stevens tried to regain custody of her youngest son after the sexual-abuse charges were laid, FCS opposed the move, dispatching its own lawyers and four witnesses to the hearing to fight to keep the child with the wife of the man who'd abused her children (who was then out on bail).
Supreme Court Justice Walter Goodfellow not only awarded custody back to Stevens, but he also demolished the FCS's claim the woman [the foster mother] hadn't known the children were being abused by her husband: "If in fact she did not know, ignorance of such conduct could only be by willful blindness or negligence."
What does all of this have to do with Michael Baker now?
To be fair to Baker, he only joined the board after the courts had convicted the foster father, but that was still a full three years before the province - not the FCS - launched its review.
Knowing what he knows about what went on in Lunenburg, Baker should realize just how fallible children's services can be.
The Finck-VandenElsen case, of course, represents the flip side of what happened in Lunenburg. Instead of under-reacting to allegations of real abuse, the Halifax Children's Aid Society stands accused of over-reacting to vague concerns from Ontario Children's Aid and erroneous information from a not-disinterested ex-husband.
While that may put into clearer perspective the real-life dilemma child-protection workers face every day in trying to determine when a child is at real risk - something even those of us criticizing Children's Aid need to acknowledge - it also strengthens the argument that we need a public inquiry to find out what went wrong in the Finck-VandenElsen case, and make sure it doesn't happen again.
Let's hope it doesn't take another three years this time.
The Richard Cuthbertson article alluded to below appears next.
The Daily News (Halifax)
Sunday, May 30, 2004
Who are They?
By Richard Cuthbertson
A small bouquet of flowers wrapped in plastic lay on the doorstep of the lime green house at 6161 Shirley St. last week. Only days earlier, the house was the scene of a sensational three-day standoff involving Carline VandenElsen, her husband Larry Finck, their infant daughter and swarms of heavily armed police officers.
Police had arrived in the middle of night with a Children's Aid Society apprehension order in hand, but were turned away when the door to the home was barricaded and shots allegedly fired from inside.
Finck and VandenElsen face a myriad of charges in relation to the standoff, and their infant daughter has been taken by Children's Aid.
Meanwhile, it appears that someone placed those flowers at the house in memory of Finck's mother, Mona, who died in the house during the standoff.
We now know that Mona Finck lived on the street for more than three decades, and longtime residents like Mary Deyoung, said she was a familiar and well-liked face in the neighbourhood.
The circumstances surrounding her death date back years.
Larry Finck and VandenElsen are quickly becoming household names. Some see them as narcissistic, spurred by a sense of martyrdom, people who relish their battles with the justice system. Others see them as heroes in a fight pitting an overbearing, even menacing, state against the lawful rights of parents.
It seems odd (although some would say it's destiny) that two people whose lives have taken such remarkably similar tangents should meet, fall in love, marry and have a child together. But that's exactly what happened when they wed a year ago. Now, the couple is embroiled in a legal and custody battle that's become a low point in years of legal accusations, custody battles, and kidnapping trials.
Larry Finck's story began when his first daughter was born in Ontario in 1995. The mother died a year later, leaving custody of the child with her brother.
But Finck felt the girl should be with him and began a legal battle to gain guardianship.
As a younger man, Finck was no saint, said an old friend, Ron VandenBussche, who met Finck 20 years ago while organizing a senior league hockey team in London, Ont.
"He was a party boy, there's no doubt about it," said VandenBussche this week. Among other things, Finck was once reportedly busted by police for running an after-hours bootlegging club in London.
"He was just a character," said VandenBussche. "He'd been around the hockey wars and had a lot of good stories to tell. He was a streetwise guy."
But Finck, who became a master plumber, wanted to straighten out, said VandenBussche, and was preparing to bring up his young daughter in an old farmhouse he was renovating. At the time, Finck only had access to his daughter, including a two-week period during August 1999, when she visited him.
According to court records, Finck was due to return his daughter at the end of the month to her home on the Thames First Nation Reserve, where she was living with her uncle. Instead, he whisked her off to Halifax. Halifax Regional Police and arrested him a month later, returning Finck and his daughter to Ontario. Although offered legal aid, Finck defended himself against charges of kidnapping. According to court documents, he introduced 15 witnesses, attempting to justify his actions by demonstrating his daughter was in danger under the care of her uncle. But the judge in the case dismissed the claim that the girl was being mistreated and found Finck guilty, a ruling that was upheld on appeal. In the appeal decision, Justice Robert Armstrong wrote that far from being in danger, Finck's daughter was in good hands.
"There was no evidence that (Finck's daughter) was ever at risk physically, emotionally or psychologically," wrote Armstrong.
"The five physicians called to testify by (Finck) each described (Finck's daughter) as happy and in good health. The Children's Aid and Child and Family Service workers expressed no concern about her welfare. The two childcare workers described (Finck's daughter) as a happy, normally developing child."
The conviction landed Finck a two-year prison sentence. Judges have described Finck as confrontational, and even friends said the man isn't always easy to deal with.
"He's a smart guy and knows his way around the Criminal Code better than most lawyers," said London barrister William Dewar, who's known Finck for 25 years.
"And he's fearless. He'll stand up to the judges, even appeal court judges, tell them what the law is, look them in the eye. That's his problem: he's too smart by half."
But in a written decision obtained by The Daily News discussing Finck's application for parole in November 2001, the National Parole Board went further, suggesting that Finck's actions bordered on delusional.
"Your current obsessive type behaviour regarding the legal challenges you are making to the courts appears at times to be a departure from the generally shared perception of reality."
That doesn't make sense to VandenBussche, who said he's never thought twice about trusting his own 14-year-old daughter with Finck and VandenElsen.
He said he first met VandenElsen and her triplets by a previous marriage when they were his guests last summer at his home at Turkey Point on Lake Erie.
"She spent three days with us," said VandenBussche. "I thought she was a good mother. She disciplined the kids when they needed it, and was good to them when they needed it. They took my daughter and their kids down to the play-park, just like an ordinary family."
VandenElsen's story hit headlines in 2000 when she took off with her triplets, going on the run out of fear she would lose all custody to her ex- husband. The incident sparked an international search, while the woman spent three months zigzagging across the continent with her children, briefly spending time in Halifax. Her face was plastered on America's Most Wanted, a U.S. television program that profiles accused criminals on the lam.
Authorities caught up to VandenElsen and the triplets in Acapulco, Mexico. The children were returned to their father, and VandenElsen faced three charges of kidnapping. But she beat the rap after a sympathetic jury was convinced that the kidnapping was justified because the children would have suffered emotional harm without access to their mother.
Despite the ruling, VandenElsen lost custody of her children in November. In a written decision of her appeal in the case, Justice Grant Campbell wrote: "It has become patently obvious to any person with any healthy sense of balance that these three children have become the vehicle by which Ms. VandenElsen has chosen to perpetuate her fixation with her own perceived victimization."
About a month later, VandenElsen gave birth to Finck's daughter in Halifax. According to Dewar, who's been in contact with Finck, the couple believed the Children's Aid Society wanted to take the child soon after she was born.
"Somebody recognized Carline in the hospital (in Halifax) and blew the whistle, and it wasn't long before the CAS down there got in the picture," said Dewar.
In the end, the child was taken after the 67-hour standoff, which ended when VandenElsen and Finck emerged from the Shirley Street house with their infant daughter, carrying a stretcher bearing the body of Mona Finck.
Mona Finck's funeral was a simple affair at St. Thomas Aquinas Church on Oxford Street, where she once worshiped. There was no eulogy, only prayers and quiet hymns -- belying, perhaps, the circumstances of her death.
8. Potholes litter path to Public Inquiry
By Stephen Kimber
The Daily News, July 4th, 2005
It’s been an interesting week on the other side of the media trenches. I’ve recently become a member of a community group pushing for a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the seizure of the infant child of Larry Finck and Carline VandenElsen. I usually steer clear of joining such groups, partly because I already have a pulpit for my views, partly because I want to maintain my independence and partly — if I am to be honest — because I hate meetings.
But I’d become frustrated only writing about this particular case. Since the May 2004 highly publicized 67-hour standoff between Finck and VandenElsen and a heavily armed police swat team, I’ve written a half-dozen columns outlining my concerns about the role the Children’s Aid Society and Family Court played in taking this child from its parents, and about the massive use of police force to do it.
Each column generated e-mails, letters and phone calls, many from ordinary readers with no direct connection to the case or personal histories with Children’s Aid, most supporting my call for a public inquiry and many asking what they could do to help make an inquiry happen.
My only suggestion — that they write their MLA — seemed lame and unlikely to have much effect without an organized campaign behind it.
So when I got a call a few weeks ago from author Heather Laskey, a resident of the neighbourhood where the standoff took place [and fellow journalist], inviting me to a meeting she and some others were holding to discuss what they could do to right what they too saw as a wrong, I quickly agreed.
Last week, we — now known as the MCF Inquiry Committee (MCF is how the infant is described in court documents) — called a news conference to explain why a public inquiry is needed and to announce the committee’s plans to insert an advertisement in the next day’s Halifax Chronicle-Herald. The ad would outline the case for a public inquiry and encourage readers to write Justice Minister Michael Baker demanding one.
Just before the news conference, however, a Herald official called to say the paper wouldn’t run our ad without editorial changes (reasonable ones, in fact, to which we quickly agreed), and unless — as well as paying upfront for the ad — each member of the committee signed a letter to “indemnify and hold harmless The Halifax Herald Ltd., its officers and individuals acting on its behalf from any claims or causes of action” that might result from the ad.
That unusual request — when was the last time any newspaper asked Sobeys officials to sign a waiver absolving the paper of legal responsibility for the contents of their ads? — isn’t really so unusual in this very unusual case.
Ever since the standoff, in fact, media outlets have been grappling with a difficult dilemma: what can they legally publish or broadcast?
On the one hand, this is a child-custody case, and there are very clear rules in place that prohibit publishing any information that might reveal the identities of children involved in such cases.
On the other hand, the standoff — shotgun fired, police emergency response teams, snipers on roofs, neighbourhood evacuated — was a major news event that could not be understood without writing about the custody issue that triggered it all.
To complicate matters, the story raised a number of important questions of legitimate public interest. Were Children’s Aid and Family Court really acting in “the best interests of the child” when they took the five-month-old from her parents, or were they vindictively punishing two admittedly difficult parents for challenging their arbitrary authority? Did the police act appropriately, or did the massive deployment of police power actually create the crisis that followed?
How do you ask those questions without writing about the custody issue?
Even now, no one seems quite sure how to juggle these competing pressures. It took CBC Radio, for example, more than five hours and eight local newscasts’ worth of internal discussion last week to finally decide to run a story about our committee’s call for a public inquiry.
And the Herald, which had published its own first-rate, four-day series on the background to the case last week — the first real attempt to put the issues and personalities in context since Richard Cuthbertson’s excellent story on Larry Finck’s personal history appeared in The Daily News immediately after the standoff — decided not to post its own series on its website on the advice of its lawyers.
(Having raised the issue of how other media outlets have dealt with the story, I should note — gratefully — that my editors have not censored or substantively altered any of the columns I’ve written about the case.)
But this media conundrum — like the standoff circus and the courtroom craziness — is ultimately beside the point.
We are still left with questions:
- Why did authorities take the child in the first place?
- Who authorized the use of massive force to seize the child?
- Why does the child not have her own independent legal representation in court?
- What external checks and balances are in place to make sure that Children’s Aid, Family Court and the Community Services Department act in the interest of the child?
If you agree, I encourage you to write (5151 Terminal Rd., Halifax, N.S. B3J 2L6), call (902-424-4044) or e-mail the justice minister http://email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org demanding he appoints such an inquiry.
It won’t happen otherwise.
7. Open Letter to Justice Minister Michael Baker
by Stephen Kimber Tuesday, June 07, 2005
Dear Mr. Baker,
You said last week it is “inappropriate” for you to comment on calls for a public inquiry into the May 2004 seizure of then five-month-old Mona Clare Finck by the Children’s Aid Society, both because her parents are awaiting sentencing on their criminal convictions in the matter and because the issue of the now-toddler’s permanent custody is still before the courts.
That’s strange, Mr. Baker.
When does the inappropriate become appropriate for you?
On Nov. 10, 2004, for example, you announced, with much fanfare, that there will be “a full, independent and public inquiry” into the circumstances surrounding the death of Theresa McEvoy. You made this announcement less than a month after a teenager was charged with causing her death during a joyride in a stolen car. You announced this inquiry before the courts had dealt with those charges and a full seven months, in fact, before the boy’s sentencing hearing — which only begins this week — had taken place.
This wasn’t even the first, or only, time you’d decided it was “appropriate” for you to talk [about] this particular case in public while it was before the courts. On Nov. 1, you criticized your own officials’ handling of the case and said it was “extremely unfortunate” the boy hadn’t been kept in jail while awaiting trial on other charges. On Nov. 4, you publicly expressed “sympathies” to the McEvoy family and promised you would “carefully review and consider” their request for a judicial inquiry. You even announced you would be going to Ottawa to lobby for legal changes to make it easier to keep young offenders behind bars.
Was that inappropriate?
You tell me.
In the Finck-VandenElsen case, you say that, “based on the information we have at the present time, the Department of Justice does not feel that a public inquiry is warranted.” Unless there is new information, you said, there would be no inquiry.
I have no new information, Mr. Baker, but I do have some old questions. Perhaps, since you feel the public knows everything we need to know about how this case was handled, you’d like to answer them for me:
1) What was the legal basis for seizing the baby from her parents? Which of the 14 criteria specified in the Family and Children’s Services Act justified this action? Did the court consider, as the Act requires, “the best interest of the child” and “the importance for the child’s development of a positive relationship with a parent or guardian and a secure place as a member of a family,” or was it swayed by irrelevant arguments about the personal behaviour and attitudes of the parents that were unrelated to their capabilities as parents?
2) What witnesses were called and what evidence was presented at the January 2004 hearing when the initial apprehension order was granted in order to satisfy the court there were “reasonable and probable grounds to believe that the child may be in need of protective services”? Did the proceedings demonstrate, as the Act requires, “a real danger [to the child] that is apparent on the evidence”?
3) Was the doctor who delivered the baby and met with the parents before and after the baby’s birth called to testify at this hearing? Was the judge informed that the Children’s Aid Society had interviewed the doctor the week before the hearing to ask if she had any concerns about “either parent, re: mental health,” and that she’d answered: “No, no concerns” ? Were the doctor’s notes — “Both parents appropriate with baby, caring, loving” — introduced as evidence? Were those notes considered by the judge before making her decision?
4) Has your department — as it was so quick to do in the McEvoy case — launched an internal review of how this case was handled by your officials? By the Family Court? By Children’s Aid? If so, what was the nature of those inquiries? What were the results?
5) Has your department received a copy of the internal review by the Halifax Regional Police into its handling of this case? Will it be made public? Will there be an independent review to determine how and by whom the decision to use overwhelming force — battering ram, submachine guns — to carry out the apprehension order and whether this level of force was appropriate in this case?
I have other questions as well. About Children’s Aid’s role, more generally, in child custody cases. And about the checks and balances in place, in the law and in practice, to ensure that our Children and Family Services Act lives up to its lofty promise of acting in “the best interests of a child.”
But I’ll wait for your answer to these initial questions before I pose them.
I look forward to your reply.
Sincerely, Stephen Kimber
6. Why we need a Public Inquiry into the taking of Mona Clare
By Stephen Kimber
May 29, 2005
Forget for a moment the circus that their trial became: their lawyer firings, their seemingly ever-more-paranoid claims of baby-factory conspiracies, their spectator-shocking, judge-trying courtroom outbursts, their richly fertilized and cross-pollinated legal garden of lawsuits, appeals, briefs and petitions that are still growing wild inside Halifax court houses. Forget even Carline VandenElsen’s current “starving-for-the-children” hunger strike that threatens to turn this farce into tragedy.
Focus instead on the single critical — and still unanswered — question that is at the heart of the story of Mona Clare Finck: Did the Nova Scotia Children’s Aid Society have any reasonable legal grounds to seize the infant from her parents in the first place?
Everything else — policemen with battering rams and machine guns showing up at the Finck front door in the middle of one night last May, the single shot fired from inside the house, the 67-hour standoff with a heavily-armed police tactical squad that followed, the death by natural causes [heart attack] of Mona Clare’s grandmother in the middle of it all, the criminal charges, the trial, the application by child protection authorities for permanent custody… All of those events flow from an initial decision by Children’s Aid back in December 2003 to seek an apprehension order for the then still-unborn Mona Clare.
Why did Children’s Aid do that?
Could its decision to take the infant have been made on the basis of nothing more substantial than a relayed phone call to Ontario Children’s Aid from VandenElsen’s far-from-disinterested ex-husband, informing them — wrongly, as it turns out — that VandenElsen had already given birth in Halifax.
We do know VandenElsen and her husband Larry Finck had each been in conflict with child protection authorities in Ontario over the custody of their children from previous marriages. We know Finck served time for abducting his daughter [did not return child to her Uncle whom Mr Finck believed was abusing his daughter- the mother was deceased] , and VandenElsen was charged with kidnapping her triplets. But we also know a jury found her not guilty of those charges, accepting her argument she was acting out of what she considered necessity. We know too that the Crown successfully appealed the verdict, meaning VandenElsen — still not found guilty of anything — was awaiting a new trial at the time of the apprehension order.
Perhaps most importantly, we know now that there is nothing on the public record — other than their ongoing battles with child custody authorities — to indicate that either Finck or VandenElsen was an unfit parent.
So why did Children’s Aid seize Mona Clare?
Should there be — as Carline VandenElsen is demanding — a full public inquiry to answer that question?
Nova Scotia Justice Minister Michael Baker doesn’t think so. Shortly after VandenElsen announced she would stop eating until authorities agreed to such an inquiry, the Justice Minister issued a terse news release: “Based on the information we have at the present time,” he said, “the Department of Justice does not feel that a public inquiry is warranted.”
What information is that, Mr. Baker?
The province’s Children and Family Services Act, which governs child custody issues, is clear that the “purpose of this Act is to protect children from harm, promote the integrity of the family and assure the best interests of children.”
The Act specifically lists 14 different situations in which a child might be “in need of protective services.” Those include everything from actual and potential physical, sexual or emotional abuse, to neglect and abandonment, to the parents’ failure or unwillingness to provide proper medical care.
None of the criteria apply to this case.
Even if you were to stretch the Act’s Section 22.2(g) — which says a child can be taken from its parents if “there is a substantial risk that the child will suffer emotional harm [demonstrated by severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or self-destructive or aggressive behaviour]…” — and tried to make the argument that someday perhaps Mona Clare’s parents’ disputes with child protection authorities over custody of children from before she was born might somehow, possibly, conceivably result in some unspecified emotional harm to Mona Clare, well, that is much, much more than just a stretch.
The Act itself is clear about what constitutes “substantial risk” of harm to a child: “a real danger that is apparent on the evidence.”
The evidence in this case, in fact, suggests quite the opposite. The doctor who delivered the child and met with the family before and after her birth reported: “Both parents appropriate with baby, caring, loving.” Neighbours, who saw mother and daughter in the weeks before the police assault, said they saw nothing to indicate the child was in any danger. Doctors and nurses at the IWK, who examined five-month-old Mona Clare after she’d been seized by police, described her as “a well grown and well developed baby with no clinical signs of any illness… doing well… active, playful and feeding well…”
So, Mr. Baker, let me ask you again: What information did your department have at the time that legally justified seizing this child from her parents?
Or does this really have anything to do with the law?
Could it be that Children’s Aid here over-reacted to an over-reaction by child protection officials in Ontario, who didn’t like Finck’s and VandenElsen’s attitude and wanted to punish them for the crime of being difficult? And could it be that judges here okayed this because our Family Court system has become more of a rubber stamp for the child-care bureaucracy than a careful check on the arbitrary powers of those agencies? Could there be other cases as egregious as this one that we don’t yet know about only because no shots were fired. [absolutely !]
The truth, Mr. Baker, is that you already have plenty of information to warrant a public inquiry. It’s past time you called one.
Halifax Daily News, February 27, 2005
What is in the best interest of a child? And what is in the best interest of the agency responsible for protecting that child?
Those were the first questions that jumped into my head last week when I learned that the Children’s Aid Society of Halifax now wants the courts to grant it permanent custody of the daughter of Larry Finck and Carline VandenElsen.
The Society says it believes it must seek permanent care and custody of the child because — in the 12-and-a-half months since it won its first apprehension order for the then-infant in January 2004 — “the parents have become more enveloped in their own theories of conspiracy and system abuse, and have shown a continued and increasing inability and unwillingness to acknowledge mental health issues, parenting concerns and their own involvement in activities which place the child at risk.”
We need to remind ourselves of how we got to this point in the first place.
Start with Finck and VandenElsen. They do each have a history of conflict with child protection authorities, it is true, but neither has ever been convicted of abusing or neglecting their children.
In the heat of custody disputes with their former spouses, both took off with their kids. In 2000, Finck was convicted and served time in jail. That same year, VandenElsen ran off to Mexico with her triplets because she was afraid she was about to lose all access to them. An Ontario jury later acquitted VandenElsen of child abduction, agreeing with her argument that she believed losing contact with their mother would cause the children irreparable harm. But the Crown has since successfully appealed that verdict and VandenElsen is now awaiting a second trial on those charges.
In the fall of 2003, after VandenElsen became pregnant with their child, she and Finck returned to her new husband’s hometown of Halifax, and moved in with his mother.
The event that apparently triggered the wild legal and emotional rollercoaster that is still rolling over both of them was a phone call to Children’s Aid officials in Ontario on Dec. 18, 2003, informing them that Carline was in Halifax, had had a baby — she didn’t until a week later — and that it could be in danger.
The call came from Craig Merkley, VandenElsen’s ex-husband, the one with whom she’d had the bitter custody dispute. Hardly an unbiased observer.
Based — so far as we know now — on that self-interested call and on the Ontario CAS’s blatantly obvious conclusion that Carline had attempted to “have the children align with her throughout a lengthy custody and access dispute” — it relayed a “child protection alert” to Halifax Children’s Aid, which then sought an apprehension order to take the child from its parents.
Children’s Aid went ahead with its application even after interviewing a Halifax doctor who’d helped deliver the baby and had met with the family on three separate occasions before and after. She told them she had “no concerns” about their parenting at all.
Which hardly clarifies why Halifax police officers, carrying a machine gun and battering ram, showed up in the middle of one night last May to execute the CAS order.
While Finck’s and VandenElsen’s refusal to hand over their child in such circumstances — and the bizarre 67-hour standoff that followed — might explain the CAS’s reference in its permanent custody application to the couple’s “involvement in activities which place the child at risk,” it does not even begin to explain why Children’s Aid triggered the chain of events that put the child at risk in the first place.
The more you look under the rock of the CAS’s initial decision-making, in fact, the easier it is to understand why Finck and VandenElsen might become enveloped in “theories of conspiracy and system abuse.” Although those theories — Children’s Aid as an adoption factory for white babies, or in collusion with the pharmaceutical industry to over-medicate children in care for greater profits — might indeed be outlandish, and their blizzard of legal challenges and lawsuits against anyone and everyone even remotely involved in their case may be a time-consuming annoyance to the courts, the reality is that all of this started because of what appears to be the unjustified actions of the Children’s Aid Society.
Given that, you can begin to understand why Finck and VandenElsen might be reluctant to “acknowledge mental health issues [and] parenting concerns” when all they did to trigger this torrent of officialdom was have a baby.
Did Children’s Aid really take this baby because it thought she was in danger? Or as an act of bureaucratic vengeance because VandenElsen and Finck — who already believed the agency had treated them unfairly in the past and had made their feelings known loudly and often — rubbed its workers the wrong way?
And does CAS now want its original custody order made permanent to protect the child? Or itself?
Before any order is granted, we need answers to those questions.
By Stephen Kimber
Halifax Daily News, September 26, 2004
I know, I know. I should move on. There is, after all, plenty of other stuff I could be writing about: wars, hurricanes, civic elections, American elections, panhandlers, health care deals, health care crises, the new fall television season, the no-new hockey season, the sponsorship scandal hearings, how those fine editors at CanWest managed to make “terrorists” out of “militants” and even ordinary “people” and blah blah blah…
So why do I keep coming back to the strange and twisted tale of Carline VandenElsen, Larry Finck, their daughter Mona Clare, the Halifax Regional Police and the Children’s Aid Society?
Because there is still much about this case that puzzles me, and because the more I learn the less convinced I am that Children’s Aid is acting — as it is supposed to do — in the “best interests” of this child.
Let’s review: At 1:30 a.m. on May 19, Halifax City Police stormed the Halifax house where the Fincks were living with their then five-month old daughter and Finck’s mother. The police demanded they surrender the baby to Children’s Aid, which had obtained a court order for her custody. That precipitated a 67-hour standoff that is now the focus of a dog’s breakfast of charges — and counter-charges — involving VandenElsen and Finck.
But did the police really need to go in with a battering ram and machine guns in the middle of the night to rescue the child?
No. Although VandenElsen did take the baby to visit her sister in Alberta around the time the initial court order was issued in mid-January, they returned to Halifax a month later and had been hiding in plain sight in her mother-in-law’s house for more than two months before police moved in.
In the weeks before the siege, in fact, VandenElsen went for walks in the neighbourhood without Larry. She carried Mona Clare in a Snugli. The police could easily have apprehended the baby in those circumstances without violence and certainly without the standoff that eventually transpired.
We know they could have done that because we now know police knew for some time VandenElsen and the baby were back in town, and were watching them.
In fact, earlier on the night the standoff began, police officers followed Finck and VandenElsen to the local Walmart where they did some shopping for the baby. Mona Clare was at home with her grandmother. Again, that created an obvious window of opportunity for police to seize the child without provoking an incident — if they so desired.
We do not know — and probably never will if we depend just on the criminal trials ahead — why the police acted as they did.
Just as we may never know — without a public inquiry — exactly why Children’s Aid sought the court order to take the child in the first place.
We know the first record in the chain that led to the custody order was a call to Children’s Aid in Stratford, ON, on Dec. 18 from Craig Merkely, VandenElsen’s ex-husband, wrongly informing them VandenElsen had already had her baby in Halifax.
To put his call in context, Merkley and VandenElsen had been involved in a lengthy, nasty custody battle over their triplets, during which — as is often the case in such matters — each side accused the other of poor parenting, even abuse. But there was never any evidence VandenElsen actually abused her kids.
The worst the Children’s Aid there could come up with when it issued its Canada-wide Child Protection Alert a day after talking with Merkley, in fact, was VandenElsen’s “attempts to have the children align with her throughout a lengthy custody and access dispute.”
Now there’s a surprise.
It is true, however, that VandenElsen did take off with the children in the fall of 2000 when she thought she would lose complete custody of them. As a result, she was charged with child abduction. But a jury acquitted her on the grounds of “necessity.” The Ontario Court of Appeal overturned that decision and has ordered a new trial, which is scheduled for this fall. Last October, another court there awarded permanent custody of the children to her ex-husband.
Two weeks after that, VandenElsen moved to Halifax with Larry Finck —who’d served two years for abducting his daughter in a custody dispute — whom she’d met and married during her legal odyssey. Their plan was to start over with their new child in a new city. On Dec. 23, VandenElsen gave birth to Mona Clare.
Were VandenElsen and Finck — whose main run-ins with the law involved highly charged custody disputes — such a danger to their newborn daughter she needed to be taken from them immediately?
Certainly not based on the family photographs VandenElsen included in an affidavit she filed with the Supreme Court in August. They show a smiling baby, playing with stuffed animals, cuddled in the arms of her father, being dressed by her mother and fed by her grandmother.
Photographs never tell the whole story, of course, but consider these reports from doctors who examined Mona Clare.
On Jan 8, 2004, the Children’s Aid Society approached Dr. Dawn Edgar, who’d assisted in Mona Clare’s birth and saw the family on three subsequent occasions, to ask if she had any concerns about “either parent, re: mental health.” According to Edgar’s own notes of the conversation, she told the CAS: “No, no concerns. Both parents appropriate with baby, caring, loving.”
A week later, the Children’s Aid here got an order to apprehend the baby.
Three months later, after Mona Clare was turned over to social workers following the siege, she was taken to the IWK Health Centre “for further observations and investigations for possible non-accidental injury.” According to the discharge report signed by Dr. D. Chowdhury, nursing notes indicated the baby was “doing well on the floor, active, playful and feeding well.” Chowdury’s own impression was that Mona Clare was “a well grown and well developed baby with no clinical signs of any illness.”
So why was Mona Clare taken from her parents?
We need a public inquiry into this case — and plenty of others I’ve been told about since I started writing about Mona Clare — to find out how Children’s Aid really operates and whether it acts in “the best interests” of children.
3. The Crime of being a Pain
By Stephen Kimber
Halifax Daily News September 19, 2004
So is Canada’s judicial system now punishing Carline VandenElsen for the high crime of being a legal pain in the ass?
Last week, an Ontario judge turned down VandenElsen’s request to delay until next March her upcoming retrial on charges that, during an ugly custody battle with her ex-husband in 2000, she grabbed her triplets and took off to Mexico.
On the face of it, her request hardly seems unreasonable, or unusual.
Anyone who has spent any time inside a Canadian courtroom will know just how much valuable court time is sucked up as lawyers and judges sweat over their Daytimers and Palm Pilots trying to find a date, any date, often months in the future, when they’ll finally all be in the same place at the same time — and there’ll be an unoccupied court room available for them to use — so they can attend to whatever are the pressing legal matters at hand.
One could argue that it takes way too long to get justice in Canada, but that is another issue and another column.
The simple fact is that delays are the way the system works.
And VandenElsen had good cause to ask for a delay.
Her case in Ontario is set of begin with a pre-trial hearing on Tuesday. But on Friday, VandenElsen was supposed to be here in Halifax in Family Court for the continuation of a hearing to review the status of a temporary custody order involving her baby daughter. That hearing was expected to last into this coming week (although the judge has since ruled, without VandenElsen present, that her baby will, in fact, remain in temporary foster care).
Even with custody off the table, VandenElsen still has plenty of other legal matters on her plate to keep her fully occupied in Halifax. For starters, of course, she and her husband must prepare their defence against a blizzard of criminal charges — and legal counter-claims — relating to a three-day standoff in late May when police arrived at their home in the middle of the night with a battering ram and machine guns to enforce a court order taking their baby away from them.
That case is supposed to go to trial in January.
The charges are serious, and VandenElsen doesn’t have a lawyer. Rocky Jones, who represented her at her preliminary hearing this summer, withdrew from the case because he said provincial Legal Aid doesn’t pay lawyers enough to handle complex criminal matters.
Before her life became an escalating series of legal battles with the established order, it’s worth noting that VandenElsen was a middle-class mother of three, a teacher, a homeowner, someone “who could afford a glass of wine when I wanted one.”
Today she is living rent-free in her late mother-in-law’s home on Shirley Street, barely surviving on the $175 a month she gets from welfare and the supplementary support of friends. She can’t afford a lawyer, can’t even afford a phone, and she gets around — mostly from court house to court house — on a borrowed bicycle.
So how is she supposed to be able to afford to fly back and forth to Ontario for her upcoming retrial and legal hearings in Halifax? (She managed to make last week’s court date in Ontario only because her sister bought the ticket.)
Judge Bonne Wein didn’t answer that when she ordered VandenElsen to be back in court in Stratford this week.
Just as she didn’t explain exactly what it was about this particular case that made it so pressing it had to go forward immediately.
VandenElsen has already been tried once. She was acquitted when a jury bought her argument she was not guilty by reason of necessity, forced to abduct her own children to prevent the courts from denying her permanent access to them. The Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the jury’s verdict, ruling the judge had made a mistake in letting her make the necessity argument in the first place, and ordered a new trial.
So VandenElsen must faces those charges again, but there is no urgency about the matter. Since her original trial, another court awarded permanent custody of the children to her ex-husband. She hasn’t seen them since Sept. 2003.
Even the Crown, in a June letter, said it believed the more serious “Nova Scotia matters should be concluded” before her retrial.
So why the urgency?
Could it be that VandenElsen ruffles too many legal feathers? Last week, she angrily called a Nova Scotia Children’s Aid Society lawyer a bitch and loudly informed the judge in her Ontario hearing she wouldn’t be back for the court-ordered jury selection.
Over the past decade, it’s fair to say VandenElsen has become so embittered by her experiences with Canada’s legal system she fails to show the due deference our courts believe they’re entitled to.
But since when has it been a crime to be a pain in the ass.
[Linda Youngson said... (originally posted on a comment section of an advocacy site)
I just wanted to post this in your new comment spot- I thought it was a bit lost where it was replying to Stephen Kimber's article of August 2004. I think this is very important information for the public to know.
"We won’t find the answers to the most important questions from the court cases" What Kimber is saying here is unfortunately true - and my heart is on the ground because of this. I have attended many Children's Services/ Children's Aid court cases as a court observer and I am appalled.
During Carline and Larry's recent family court appearance, I, and other fellow advocates, witnessed a security guard tackling Carline at the end of the court day.
This action was totally unprovoked! Carline had gathered her materials and was beginning to walk towards the door. We watched amazed at this spectacle!
A World War 2 Vet called out to the justice to stop this. "My Lady, Is this what my brothers and friends died for?" he called out.
But the justice just stood and watched for a few seconds before she turned and withdrew to her chambers.
Meanwhile, the security guard and Carline tumbled out of view, through the doors, into a small antechamber.
I was concerned because I knew Carline had writhed in pain for days, unable to eat, when she was first arrested, because she had been horribly tasered by the police - out of sight- and now Carline was out of sight again.
In response, I quickly, jumped around the other observers on the benches and swung open the doors and calmly but firmly informed the security guard 3 times. "I am a witness, I am a witness, I am a witness"
By this time, the security guard had Carline half pinned against the wall and half pinned on the floor. The guard looked at me while Carline, in the same tone, said, "She's a witness. She's a witness"
At this point, the guard released Carline and backed away. Then the World War 2 vet and his wife drove Carline home.
Since that day, I have been harassed as a court observer in Carline and Larry's other criminal and constitutional cases. One day, immediately after returning from a break, the justice pointed me out stating that he had "reports" of me "looking at the jury" and trying to communicate to Carline and trying to pass notes to her!- though the justice did qualify that he, himself, had not seen any of this himself.
We were all shocked and surprised! I am a court observer, and that includes observing the jury! Did he think my "looking at the jury" was somehow influencing them? And as for passing notes to Carline, I had been 2 benches behind Carline with women sitting on either side of me, right in front of the justice! Not a prime location to be passing notes!
I ask, if the justice did not see any of this, why did he even bring this up? As for the conduct of the security guards and the clerk who sits in front of the justice, we were shocked to see them openly smerking and silently snickering when Carline was speaking for herself. I was concerned that this open lack of respect for Carline would unduly influence the jury! In fact, that day, I observed a juror, bend down, pick up a writing pad, write a note and show it to the juror beside her. In response, the second juror nodded his head and silently snickered.So who was influencing who?
Then, just last week, I walked in on Carline's Constitution Issues court case. At the time, Carline was testifying on the stand. I had not been there 5 minutes when I saw communication between the security guards and forthwith I was accused of trying to communicate with Carline!
OK folks, enough, is enough! I am a court observer, and I have a right to do my job without being harassed!
We need more people sitting in on these Children Services/ Children's Aid court cases. The media is only there in intermittent spurts, oftentimes during a feeding frenzy.
I am not proud of the antics and the behavior I have seen in our courts. And they act this way, because noone is watching them and keeping them accountable.
In Halifax and Cape Breton Supreme Court Family Division (Devonshire St. and downtown) you have the right to sit in on and Children's Services/Children's Aid court case. Before we knew better, a leading court administrator lied to us about our right to do so.
Don't bother asking - Just go in and sit down. If they ask, you need only identify yourself as a court observer.
Come on folks! Participate! Let's clean up these courts so that they can be something we can be proud of. This will help us all - even the people who have to work every day in this environment.
Peace and love to you all! ]
by Stephen KimberHalifax Daily News
Aug 15, 2004
What to make of the latest bizarre twists and turns in the tempestuous, tortured and terrible — not to forget, in these news-less dogs days of summer, terribly titillating — saga of Larry Finck and Carline VandenElsen?
Last Tuesday, the Halifax couple at the centre of May’s infamous 67-hour Shirley Street Standoff were finally committed to stand trial in connection with the incident. They are each charged with breaching a court order for refusing to hand over their infant daughter to the Children’s Aid Society, forcibly confining their baby to keep her out of the hands of CAS workers and, finally, obstructing well-weaponed police officers — they showed up at Finck’s family home in the middle of the night packing a machine gun and battering ram in their arsenal — attempting to enforce that order.
Finck is also charged with six different weapons offences in connection with a gun shot allegedly fired from inside the house at the beginning of the standoff, even though — as became clear during the preliminary hearing — the Crown no longer believes he fired the gun.
And so it goes.
When they first appeared in court after their arrest, VandenElsen and Finck demanded an immediate preliminary hearing in order to get the facts of their case out quickly (not to mention asking for safe haven in Iraq).
But then last week, in the middle of that very hearing, they suddenly volunteered to waive their right to the preliminary and move directly to trial. Given that preliminary hearings are mainly intended to provide the defence with the outlines of the Crown’s case so the defendants can prepare for the trial, giving up on the hearing before it had concluded seemed… well, unusual.
Even more unusual, however, the Crown opposed the request. In part, that’s because Crown attorney Rick Woodburn wanted to present evidence to convince the judge there were grounds for charging VandenElsen instead of Finck as the trigger-person in the alleged shooting.
But Judge Castor Williams ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to support those charges, meaning the Crown is still prosecuting Larry Finck for firing the shot they no longer believe he fired.
In the midst of all this, we learned from the papers that Finck’s mother — who died of natural causes inside the barricaded house during the incident and whose body was then carried out by the couple on a stretcher when they ended the siege — had bequeathed Finck a grand total of just five dollars out of an estate worth three-quarters of a million dollars.
It is easy — too easy — to get caught up in the weirdness of all of this and lose sight of the important issues at the heart of this case.
Should Children’s Aid have been given a court order to take custody of Finck and VandenElsen’s infant daughter in the first place? Did Halifax Regional Police’s handling of the initial stages of this incident help provoke the confrontation that led to the standoff.
Both VandenElsen and Finck have a “history;” each has faced charges of abducting their children from previous relationships during custody battles. But there has never been any indication in anything I’ve heard or seen to suggest either of them was ever an abusive, or negligent, or otherwise unfit parent.
So why would Children’s Aid want to take their new baby away from them?
Hiding behind its usual “protection of privacy” shield, the Society has had little to say about the circumstances that led them to seek the order but we have learned, as a result of the court proceedings, that it followed a call from VandenElsen’s ex-spouse, the one with whom she had the custody battle. Hardly a disinterested party.
And the police? While the force deserves credit for its patience and restraint during the standoff, it has now become apparent that the initial police actions — arriving in the middle of the night, heavily armed, and using a battering ram to try and gain entry to the house — may have been at least as responsible as VandenElsen and Finck for the way events so quickly spiralled out of control.
Carline VandenElsen is absolutely right. We do need a public inquiry into the way Children’s Aid and the Halifax police dealt with this case from the beginning. Because we won’t find the answers to the most important questions from the court cases.
1. Shirley Street Stand--Off
By Stephen Kimber
Halifax Daily News, May 30, 2004
The recent 67-hour standoff between Halifax Regional Police and a couple who refused to hand their infant daughter over to the custody of the Children’s Aid Society showcased the former at its professional, level-headed best but has raised troubling questions about the role of the latter in controversial child protection cases.
Start with the police.
The police had little choice but to enforce a Jan. 15 apprehension order for Mona Clare VandenElsen, the then three-week-old daughter of Lawrence Finck and Carline VandenElsen. But when officers went to the family home in late January to get the child, VandenElsen had already disappeared with her daughter.
Police learned earlier this month that the mother and child had returned to Halifax, so officers were dispatched to the house again at midnight on Wed., May 19. Though one can certainly question the wisdom of trying to serve such an order in the middle of the night, the police were legitimately concerned — based on their own experience in January as well as the couple’s track record in violating custody orders in previous relationships — that one of them might take off with the little girl again.
This time, however, the people inside the Shirley Street house refused the officers entry, barricaded the door and, at one point, when police tried to enter a second time, allegedly fired shots out the window.[one shot]
That was the beginning of a tense two-and-a-half days of SWAT teams, neighbourhood evacuations and ongoing, seemingly never-ending negotiations. Punctuated at one point by a police robot improbably delivering diapers to the house and at another by the couple’s impromptu appearance on the home’s roof to denounce Children’s Aid and breastfeed the baby. But as Halifax Police Const. Kevin McLellan put it to reporters at one point during the siege: “As long as we’re talking… we are moving forward.”
The police were smart enough to recognize that this was not a situation that required the recklessness of Rambo so much as the patience of Job. On Friday night, their staying power was rewarded when the standoff ended two days and 15 hours after it began — bizarrely but without additional violence. (While Finck’s elderly mother, who was inside the home during the standoff, did die during the siege, officials say it was of natural causes.[of a heart attack]) We owe the police a debt of gratitude for the way they handled what could easily have turned into a horrible tragedy.
But, that said, what are we to make of the Children’s Aid Society’s decision to seek custody of the child in the first place?
The Society isn’t commenting on the specifics of the case so we’re left with more questions than answers, the most important of which is this: was this apprehension order really necessary?
There’s no question both Finck and VandenElsen have track records of violating court orders in child custody disputes.In 2000, Finck was convicted of abducting his four-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and spent time in jail. That same year, VandenElsen fled to Mexico with the triplets from her first marriage because she was afraid she was about to lose all access to them. An Ontario court had already awarded custody of the children to her ex-husband and a decision on her own future access was pending. A jury later acquitted her on the abduction charges, accepting the defence argument that VandenElsen feared the children would be irreparably harmed if they lost all contact with their mother. That decision has since been overturned and a new trial ordered.
Reading between the lines of the clippings concerning those cases, neither Finck nor VandenElsen seem easy to like. “Ms VandenElsen” wrote one judge, “has chosen to perpetuate her fixation with her own victimization.” The judge in Finck’s case said he was “volatile and unpredictable… [and] has taken on the mantle of the obsessed and seems to have forsaken reason.”
The one thing I didn’t find in any of those news stories, however, was any suggestion that either parent had deliberately harmed any of their children (except, of course, insofar as the custody battle itself represented a kind of harm to them.)
Parents involved in bitter child custody battles often feel like victims, often become obsessed and, occasionally, even do stupid things they believe to be in their children’s best interests..VandenElsen and Finck have certainly both done what appear to be irrational, perhaps even illegal things in what may have been misguided attempts to right what they see as wrongs being done to their children. The courts have, or are, dealing with those cases.
But does that mean VandenElsen and Finck represented such an imminent danger to Mona Claire that Children’s Aid had no choice but to swoop in and take their child from them?
“When any court formally terminates a parent-child relationship, that is an event that is inevitably sad,” Mr. Justice Grant Campbell wrote last year in denying VandenElsen custody of her three older children. “A court must take such a drastic step in only the most extreme of cases.”
Was this really one of those cases?