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Disabled child left with dead mother for days victim of policy: watchdog

VICTORIA, BC: NOVEMBER 29, 2010 - Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Representative for Children and Youth in British Columbia, speaks to media during a press conference in Victoria, Nov. 29, 2010.

Deddeda Stemler for the Globe and Mail/deddeda stemler The Globe and Mail

A 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome who spent nine days alone with her dead mother is in a much better place now, say her family and former neighbours.

The trailer park manager who finally broke in and found her emaciated and filthy on a couch near the decomposing body of her mother said Monday that the girl is in a group home.

"She is really happy where she is," said Lawrence Jewett, who was trying to issue the mother an eviction notice from the trailer park near Chilliwack, B.C., when he found her in September.

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He and his wife took the girl from the home, bathed her and fed her while waiting for authorities.

"She's got her own room. She's got her own place she's got all new stuff, good friends, gets to school every day. Nobody is screaming and no alcohol and I think [she]is in a better place," said Mr. Jewett, who said he and his wife Edith have seen her several times.

Mr. Jewett said he recalls the mother regularly yelling at the girl and her brothers have said they reported concerns to social workers, but Mr. Jewett said he does not believe the tragedy is just the fault of the provincial Children's Ministry. He said the funding the ministry receives and the increased caseload for social workers are also to blame.

The girl's brother said Monday he is considering legal action but he, too, blamed underfunding of the ministry.

"It seems they don't have enough caseworkers.... This is just the tip of the iceberg," said the brother, who cannot be named in order to avoid identifying the sister now in provincial care.

He said he and another brother are in the process of seeking guardianship.

The two brothers said they warned the ministry that their mother suffered from alcohol and drug addiction and shouldn't have custody.

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In July, he said he took the girl from his mother but was later warned by the ministry to return her. He said that was the last time social workers saw her until Sept. 15, when she was rescued.

He said the girl was not attending school and needed better care than her mother offered.

A report released Monday by the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth said the Children's Ministry needs to change its policies immediately in the wake of the tragedy.

Children's representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said in her report that social workers failed to report the case to her office, citing an internal policy that only critical injury cases need be brought to the attention of the independent watchdog.

"The fact that this did not occur because of an outdated ministry policy that is too narrow and technical to be practical or suitable is not acceptable," Ms. Turpel-Lafond concluded in her report.

At the time of her investigation, she said there was no commitment from senior ministry officials to change that policy but a statement from the minister on Monday said otherwise.

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"The report released [Monday]is one the ministry is treating very seriously - and the recommendation is one we support," Minister of Children and Family Development Mary Polack said in a statement.

Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report said the case has shaken the public's confidence in the ministry, and she called for the government to adopt new policies by March 1 that would require workers to report critical injury and death cases to her office.

The report also noted two other cases of abuse and neglect where the ministry did not report their findings to the government.

The first involved a child it said was "suffering serious sexual assaults and incest at the hands of her abusive father."

The second was a youth who became severely disturbed and in a suicidal state after having been left with a caregiver who engaged him in sexual activity and shared drugs with him.

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