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This article was published 6/4/2017 (1184 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The tiny, bruised and starving girl who was rushed to hospital not breathing nearly three years ago was unrecognizable as the shy but happy baby child-welfare workers believed they had successfully reunited with her family.
Six months before a Manitoba toddler was murdered after being returned, Child and Family Services (CFS) workers stopped visiting the family, deciding there was no cause for concern.
They didn't know the family who had worked to have the little girl returned to their care, and who seemed to be bonding well with her, would later be charged in her death, court records reveal.
The 21-month-old girl's mother pleaded guilty this week to second-degree murder, admitting to causing fatal internal injuries and leaving the child malnourished and lacking medical attention.
The horrific signs of prolonged abuse — skull and rib fractures, bruises, a dislocated shoulder, missing teeth, a cut upper lip and an eroded nose — were not apparent when CFS officials made "frequent" visits to the Interlake family's home, two CFS workers testified during a preliminary inquiry in the criminal case.
"I never had any concerns. I would have noticed if something was wrong because I’ve worked with so many children," a retired CFS worker told court.
Child allegedly hit, pushed, slapped, force-fed
A different, much more disturbing story emerged after a lengthy RCMP investigation resulted in charges against three people in January 2015. And as part of an ongoing Free Press investigation, the untold account that the child welfare system, the courts and police have kept from public view can finally be told, now that the child's mother admitted guilt and is awaiting sentencing. Unfortunately, justice still seems to elude the victim of this murder, as a publication ban imposed for reasons that remain unclear prevents the Free Press from identifying the child or the mother.
In a case that has been compared to that of Phoenix Sinclair, prosecutors have painted a picture of months of abuse suffered by the tiny toddler. She was allegedly hit, pushed, slapped, force-fed and kept in a locked room for hours or even days without food or a clean diaper and made to sleep on the floor, testimony at the preliminary inquiry revealed.
I didn't see no concerns there during that time when I was working with them, right till the end.–CFS worker
Her mother would become frustrated with the girl's constant crying and take her anger out on the child, court heard, sometimes throwing her into her room and locking the door.
The little girl seemed afraid of her mother and would often refuse to eat, resulting in even more frustration. She weighed only about seven kilograms at the time of her death -- after her tiny, dehydrated body had been supplied with fluids as medical staff tried to revive her.
She looked more like a nine-month-old infant than a nearly two-year-old girl when she was brought in, unresponsive, her skin already turning grey, doctors noted.
The girl's mother initially gave paramedics several different explanations for her daughter's injuries. She blamed the bruises on her older children, saying the baby had accidentally found her way into the path of their flying toys. She said the unusual injury to the child's nose was due to eczema. She told paramedics the girl hadn't eaten for three days, but later explained her daughter had choked on a sausage and said she had accidentally dropped her on the head while trying to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre.
The child's mother has now admitted to assaulting her on the day she died, causing severe damage to her internal organs, including her liver and pancreas.
But CFS workers testified they saw no bruises, no signs of malnutrition, no hint that something was wrong in the year before her death.
Taken into care at birth
The girl was taken into foster care when she was born in October 2012 because of domestic abuse allegations made against another family member. Two older siblings had previously been apprehended by CFS, and the baby was placed with a foster parent in Winnipeg.
She'd been born premature, a small but otherwise healthy baby, and went to live with a foster mother who had been providing a short-term home for kids for more than 30 years. The baby girl with "puppy-dog eyes" wasn't a picky eater, though "she didn't like peaches — she would spit them at you," her former foster mother testified.
The baby didn't smile much and would "make strange" and cry anytime she was around new people, she said, but was easily comforted by her foster mom, court heard.
Meanwhile, her family worked to regain custody of all three children, completing every program CFS required of them to make that possible.
The baby and her older brother and sister were returned to their family in July 2013, a year before the 21-month-old died.
File closed a month before death
A CFS worker visited the family about three times within five months, trading off regular visits with another CFS worker, who said the pair visited at least monthly, sometimes more often starting in July 2013.
The worker last stopped by their home the day before she retired in late December 2013 — the little girl wasn't walking yet, but if she wasn't sleeping she could sometimes be seen crawling or clinging to furniture, trying to pull herself up.
"She seemed happy, kind of shy. When you spoke to her, she’d smile, and I always thought that she was a happy child," the CFS worker testified.
During the time CFS monitored the family, the mother would sometimes call to ask for help with the little girl, who often cried around her, court heard. But CFS workers believed things were OK in the family.
The final CFS visit came on Jan. 12, 2014, and by then, the CFS agency decided to close the case.
"The family was happy; the children were happy. Either mom or the dad would carry the children, they would take turns caring for their child. And oftentimes (the baby) would be sleeping, but she was OK. Everything was OK. They were healthy.
"I didn't see no concerns there during that time when I was working with them, right till the end (on Jan. 12, 2014)," another CFS worker testified in court. "We were in the midst of closing the files."
For each of the CFS visits, some scheduled and some drop-in, the house was clean, the children were dressed properly, and the family seemed to be doing well, the second worker testified.
The CFS file was officially closed about a month before the girl's death, but only because techology issues and problems with accessing Internet in the small community prevented it from being done sooner.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
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