British Columbia's child advocate and the coroner's service are investigating after a mentally disabled 15-year-old girl was left alone with her dead mother's body for nine days, despite warnings from family members and neighbours that the girl was at risk.
After days without sighting the mother or daughter, neighbours finally broke into the family's mobile home on Sept. 15 and found the girl emaciated and filthy.
"We did what we could here and we tried," Lawrence Jewett of Cultus Lake, B.C., said in an interview Friday.
"You know I'm just glad we found her when we did because it could have been one hell of a lot of worse."
Mr. Jewett and another man broke in when no one answered the door and found the mother's decomposing body on the floor. The teenage girl was sitting on the couch.
He and his wife took the girl to their home and cared for her.
"She was in really bad shape, she had diaper rash down to her ankles and she was blistered," said Edith Jewett.
She said the teen, who cannot be identified because she is now in provincial care, reeked of urine and had lost a lot of weight.
"At first I didn't recognize her, she was so much skinnier," she said.
She fed the girl, gave her a bath and gave her as much fluid as possible.
"It's sad that she sat there all that time," Ms. Jewett said in a telephone interview.
The B.C. children's advocate, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, said she was distressed that the ministry did not alert her to the case. She said she was made aware by the media and will now look into the case.
"Of course when you deal with a developmentally disabled adolescent, who's really dependent on the adult in her life for most of her care, the capacity of that caregiver to meet their needs is an important issue," she said.
The girl's adult brothers and several neighbours said they complained to authorities that the mother was a drug addict and alcoholic who neglected and verbally abused the girl.
B.C. Children's Minister Mary Polak issued a statement Friday defending her department's actions.
"Legislation prevents the ministry or the minister from commenting further on the specifics of this case, but we take this matter very seriously," Ms. Polak said. "This situation is tragic, but we must caution people from forming conclusions that are not based on all the information."
She said there are 30,000 child protection concerns reported to her department every year and all are assessed.
Ms. Polak said a regional complaints consultant has reviewed the handling of this file, as well as the region's senior practice analyst, and the consultant has written to family members.
The minister also said a decision hadn't yet been made on referring the matter to the children's representative because the girl's injuries were still being assessed.
Mr. Jewett said he and others in the trailer park near the city of Chilliwack, B.C., had complained to the ministry about the mother's verbal abuse and their concerns for the disabled girl's safety. He said a social worker attended the home in July and found nothing wrong.
"I'm not going to second-guess social services. If they say there was no problem, there's no problem," Mr. Jewett said.
But he recalled once watching the teen pick a flower from his yard and present to her mom, trying to cheer her up.
"She knew her mom was grumpy or in pain," Mr. Jewett said. "In [the girl's] mind, she was trying to do a nice thing and her mother turned and screamed and hollered."
While they sometimes heard the mother yelling, Ms. Jewett said the woman kept to herself and it wasn't unusual not to see them for days at a time. It was several days before neighbours grew worried.
She said the girl told her at first that her mom was sleeping, "but when she came over here she said 'Oh, my mom's dead. She's gone to heaven."'
Mr. Jewett helped clean out the home after the teen was rescued and said they removed about a dozen large garbage bags of empty liquor and pop bottles and cans.
There was a similar case in Quebec, where police found two brothers dead in a home in St. Jude, northeast of Montreal. They believe a 59-year-old man who was caring for his mentally disabled brother died of natural causes in September and his 46-year-old sibling, who suffered from Down syndrome, died a few days later, unable to care for himself.