Comment: Isabella’s death must not go unexplained

Times Colonist
May 19, 2015

It’s difficult to imagine anything more heart-wrenching than the death of an infant child. Isabella Wiens was only 21 months old when she died.

This tragedy is compounded by the fact that more than two years later, the cause of her death remains unknown, and the legal guardian responsible for her safety — the Government of British Columbia — has been shockingly reluctant to seek the truth.

Isabella was found dead in her foster home in March 2013, face-down under a blanket in her crib. A coroner could not determine a specific cause of death, but a post-mortem revealed multiple bruises on her body, swelling in her brain, and healing fractures to her upper and lower arm that couldn’t be explained by any of the adults in her life.

It’s important not to leap to conclusions. But I believe any reasonable person reading those findings would realize that important questions surrounding Isabella’s short life remain unanswered.

Incredibly, the Ministry of Children and Family Development decided that a review of Isabella’s case was not necessary. It took two years, sustained questioning of the minister in the legislature, and a lawsuit from Isabella’s mother before the ministry finally recently admitted that a review was warranted after all.

I am relieved that the ministry has belatedly decided to review its role in the circumstances that led to Isabella’s death. I’m hopeful that the review will lead to changes that could prevent another tragedy.

I remain hopeful in spite of this government’s long record of inaction on child welfare, and its apparent inability to co-ordinate its various agencies. This isn’t just my opinion — it’s the conclusion that was presented to members of the Select Standing Committee on Children and Youth by B.C.’s representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Turpel-Lafond told us government agencies do not collaborate well and fail to learn from their mistakes. She told us the Coroners Service failed to forward a copy of its report on Isabella’s death to her office.

What’s more, the children’s representative said she is not prepared to be “part of a process that tells the public that there are reviews and processes in place when there are not” and admonished the Ministry of Children and Family Development for leading the public to believe a full case review of Isabella’s death was done when, in fact, no such investigation was started or even planned.

This apparent indifference is not confined to Isabella’s case. In an October 2014 report, Turpel-Lafond described the government efforts to improve the safety of children in care as “just not good enough.” The government will point to the fact that three-quarters of her recommendations have been acted on, but this conceals the truth that the remaining items are, by far, the most vital for the welfare of children in care.

In the words of the representative’s report: “These are the recommendations that require overarching accountability, leadership and commitment from the provincial government, and the fact they have been ignored is both deeply disappointing and the most striking finding of this report. It has been too easy for government to use the notion that child welfare ‘is difficult work’ as an excuse for not tackling it with the determination and resources required.”

I agree with the representative’s conclusions, and the death of Isabella Wiens while in ministry care is a tragic case in point.

First, a decision was made not to conduct a case review into her death, then two years later that decision was reversed. Next a protocol investigation into Isabella’s foster home took 16 months to complete when 30 days is the ministry standard. Then it took a year for a coroner’s report to be completed, followed by another coroner’s report that was issued just this month.

All in all, the investigative system “is not rigorous and is not appropriate,” as Turpel-Lafond said, and the public accountability surely must lie with the minister of children and family development.

These are large and complex problems, but that does not absolve government of its moral duty to address them. This government also had a moral duty to safeguard this 21-month-old little girl. Isabella’s death demands explanation, not just for her mother Sara-Jane, but for every child in government care.

Doug Donaldson is the B.C. New Democrat spokesman for children and families, and the MLA for Stikine.