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Caseworker for starved Toronto boy ignored 'red flags' in case, lawyers say

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TORONTO - A caseworker for a Toronto boy who starved to death at the hands of his grandparents so trusted the couple that she didn't question what they told her despite several "red flags" in the case, lawyers said Tuesday.

Margarita Quintana, a frontline children's aid worker, told a coroner's inquest into Jeffrey Baldwin's death she had no reason to doubt Elva Bottineau and her partner Norman Kidman had been supportive parents and would be good caregivers to their grandchildren.

But it wouldn't have taken much for that image to unravel had Quintana dug a little further, argued lawyers representing Jeffrey's surviving siblings and the office of Ontario's advocate for children and youth.

The aid worker admitted she didn't look into the couple's fraught relationship with their own children, including Jeffrey's mother Yvonne Kidman, or try to confirm Bottineau's claims that she had obtained legal custody of the boy's sister before closing the family's file.

Instead, Quintana took the pair's statements "at face value," even when presented with contradictory information, said Freya Kristjanson, who represents some of the siblings.

"When you get red flags, you have to pay attention to them," she said.

Much of the information contained in the family's file was provided by Bottineau, often without any other verification, the inquest heard Tuesday.

And though Yvonne Kidman was Quintana's client, her mother was in close communication with the caseworker, even alerting her that she would seek custody of Kidman's eldest child.

The fact that Kidman had been kicked out of the house when she was pregnant with her first child at 16 should have raised concerns about Bottineau's parenting style and her relationship with her daughter, Kristjanson said.

But Quintana, who is now retired from the Catholic Children's Aid Society, said she wasn't aware of the rift because Kidman "never offered this information" and always claimed to have had a "normal" childhood.

"When someone says they have a normal upbringing, do you always take it at face value?" Kristjanson asked, noting the word means often something different to those who grow up in an abusive environment.

Yes, unless there is reason to believe otherwise, Quintana replied.

Quintana was asked whether she ever probed Kidman or her siblings about their childhood and their parents' methods of discipline, which the inquest has heard involved being beaten with a belt and forced to stand for hours on end.

The caseworker said she had numerous conversations with the siblings but did not specifically ask them about their experience, adding the teens "had (her) number" and could have called to relay the information.

"We get what we get," she said.

She also testified she didn't question Bottineau's ability to care for Jeffrey and his three siblings — all under the age of four — but simply accepted the woman's claim that her grown children would lend a hand.

Asked why she didn't challenge Bottineau on the issue, Quintana said: "Because I didn't know."

"Because you didn't ask the questions," Kristjanson replied.

Jeffrey was so severely starved at the end of his life that he couldn't lift his own head. The five-year-old was just 21 pounds when he died in November 2002 — about as much as he weighed on his first birthday.

Earlier Tuesday, the inquest heard Bottineau's efforts to take part in the proceedings were already in limbo.

A lawyer met with the convicted killer on Monday about her desire to seek standing at the inquest into Jeffrey's death.

Owen Wigderson told the coroner's lawyer afterward he would not represent Bottineau in the proceedings and that she seemed unsure of how she wanted to participate.

In an email to lawyer Jill Witkin, Wigderson said Bottineau doesn't know whether she wants to seek standing or simply testify.

"Ms. Bottineau would like to hire a lawyer to represent her interests and to help her determine whether she should seek standing at the Baldwin inquest or whether she should simply testify," the email read.

Bottineau has yet to file an application for standing and Witkin said the woman cannot decide to testify without being called to do so by the coroner.

Bottineau and Norman Kidman are serving life sentences for second-degree murder in Jeffrey's death.

Kristjanson and Suzan Fraser — lawyer for Ontario's advocate for children and youth — have said involving Bottineau would be an abuse of process.

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