B.C. ruling that found ministry failed to protect kids from sex abuse overturned
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, August 31, 2017 7:25AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, September 1, 2017 6:33AM EDT
VANCOUVER -- A court ruling that found social workers in British Columbia failed to protect kids from sexual abuse by their father has been overturned after it sparked widespread condemnation of the Children's Ministry and triggered an independent review.
The B.C. Court of Appeal has also dismissed a family court decision that found the father had sexually abused his children, ruling that the judge largely relied on evidence from an expert witness who misrepresented her credentials, and ordered the man a new trial.
Justice Daphne Smith, writing on behalf of a three-judge panel, found there was no evidence to support any claims by the mother, including that a social worker maliciously tried to discredit her allegations of sexual abuse with police and child welfare staff.
Smith also tossed findings that the director of child welfare was reckless and negligent in allowing the father to have unsupervised access and that he sexually abused his toddler during those visits.
"There was no evidence that the social workers deliberately disregarded the interests of the children in favour of the father. Rather, the evidence is clear that the director prioritized the safety and well-being of the children," she wrote.
The mother's lawyer, Jack Hittrich, said Thursday his client was "shocked and completely disappointed" by the decision and that she has asked him to file leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Children's Minister Katrine Conroy said the ministry will need to take time to review the decision and consider its full implications, but she hopes it provides clarity on a number of important child-protection issues.
"We want to acknowledge the stress that difficult situations like these can cause to the children, families, social workers and others involved. My thoughts, especially, are with the children at this time," she said in a statement.
The mother will retain custody of the children pending the outcome of the new trial in the family court case. None of the family members can be named due to a publication ban.
The father has never been criminally charged.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Walker issued both decisions that were overturned. He delivered the family court decision in 2012 and relied on evidence from that case to decide the mother's lawsuit against the Ministry of Children and Family Development in 2015.
The appeals filed by the father and the ministry were heard together over five days in November.
In the new decision, Smith wrote Walker accepted evidence in the family court case from Claire Reeves, a the U.S.-based founder of an advocacy group called Mothers Against Sexual Abuse, who described herself as a licensed psychologist and an expert.
However, Smith wrote, there were "obvious spelling errors" in her report and "red flags" that the judge and the mother's lawyer should have noticed. Reeves testified she supported chemical castration for sex offenders, had done extensive media including with CNN but had declined a request to be on the Jerry Springer Show. She also described herself as "Michael Jackson's nemesis" because of the deceased singer's alleged sex abuse of children, the ruling says.
Reeves did not interview any of the children or the father in reaching her conclusion that sexual abuse occurred, the ruling says, and her degrees were all obtained from unaccredited diploma mills that provide credentials for a fee without requirements for exams or study.
"Ms. Reeves knowingly misrepresented her qualifications to the court, was untruthful about her expertise, employment and court experience, and offered opinion evidence that was based on discredited science," Smith wrote.
Much of the opinion evidence brought by the mother was highly prejudicial to the father, distorted the fact-finding process and fundamentally undermined the fairness of the trial, the ruling says.
The judge's decision to roll most of the evidence from the family court trial into the civil trial created significant unfairness, the appeal court found, and findings against the ministry of misfeasance in public office, negligence and breach of fiduciary duty must all be tossed.
Walker's ruling in 2015 prompted outrage toward the ministry and calls for action to be taken against social workers named in the decision. It also led to a wide-ranging review of the child-welfare system by retired deputy minister Bob Plecas.
Plecas recommended boosting staff, funding and oversight while criticizing the provincial children's watchdog and a "culture of relentless accusation" where there is great appetite for blaming the ministry and workers for "perceived and real failings."