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Madeleine Berard, Director of Youth Protection for Batshaw Youth and Family Centres poses for a photograph at their offices in Montreal, Monday, Jan. 30, 2012. (Graham Hughes for The Globe and Mail)
Madeleine Berard, Director of Youth Protection for Batshaw Youth and Family Centres poses for a photograph at their offices in Montreal, Monday, Jan. 30, 2012. (Graham Hughes for The Globe and Mail)

Child-protection workers face reality of lethal family violence Add to ...

As they soul-search over how they might have saved the doomed Shafia sisters, child-protection officials in Montreal admit they were ill-prepared to confront the new form of extremism that led to the murder of the three girls.

Facing questions over whether they failed to protect the sisters, officials say they had been accustomed to dealing with cases of parental abuse before – but not with the kind of demonic plot hatched by the domineering Mohammad Shafia.

“Having that kind of cultural reference – the possibility of going through the extreme of killing your children in such a premeditated way – is something that's very new to us,” said Madeleine Bérard, director of youth protection at Batshaw Youth and Family Services in Montreal. “Now we have to work with that, because it's obviously part of our reality.”

Mohammad Shafia was convicted Sunday along with wife Tooba Mohammad Yahya and son Hamed in the first-degree murder of four members of their Montreal family, including their three daughters Zainab, Sahar and Geeti.

Batshaw, the anglophone Montreal agency that dealt with the Shafia file in 2008, has already begun a review of its handling of the case. But whatever the case workers’ possible shortcomings, officials say, they should be shared by all Canadians who have yet to confront new forms of extremism.

“I think it's a failing that we share with the rest of Canadians, in terms of not having the consciousness of how extreme some of these behaviours are,” Ms. Bérard said. “We think they're so far away and will never come home, but they are actually home right now in our own country, and we have to deal with them.”

She said Batshaw has been used to dealing with novel cultural values and generational family conflicts with each successive wave of immigration.

“But the concept of honour killing,” she said, “is so new.”

Social-service agencies in Quebec have faced scrutiny over whether they failed to spot the danger that put the lives of the Shafia sisters at risk. Two of the sisters told their school as well as youth protection workers that they were fearful of their father and brother; youth-protection services opened investigations but closed the book on them twice.

Some factors unique to the province may have worked against the girls. Quebec at the time had no province-wide registry to record reports of abuse. When one of the sisters turned to a French-language child-protection centre in 2009, officials had no record that her sister had turned to the English-language Batshaw service the year before.

Such a registry was put in place in May, 2009, after the girls had gone to authorities but shortly before they died. Ontario has had one since 2000.

Also, Quebec historically has a relatively low rate of taking at-risk children away from their families and shifting them into care – the province’s per-capita rate is the third lowest of the 13 provinces and territories, according to a 2007 study.

Some of that is economic – proportionately fewer people live in dire poverty – but it can also be linked to a stronger belief among Quebeckers in the preservation of the family unit. As a result, says Wendy Thomson, director of McGill University’s school of social work, “in Quebec you have to be demonstrating a fairly high degree of risk in order to be considered an appropriate client and receive services.”

Children’s aid groups in several other provinces said they watched the Shafia trial closely.

“Any time there’s stories related to family violence and that kind of thing, we want to pay attention,” said Christina Bruce, a spokeswoman for Alberta Human Services.

Virginia Rowden, director of policy for the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, said the case highlights the need for other social services, including immigrant settlement programs, to help people who are new to Canada feel comfortable coming forward if there are problems at home.

But she disputed the idea that child protection agencies aren’t prepared to handle culturally motivated violence. “It’s certainly not the first case where someone has been killed under the defence of honour killing,” she said. “We’re pretty tuned into that.”

She added that staff in Ontario are trained to adapt their work to diverse populations, but when it comes to acts or threats of abuse, all cases are treated in the same manner. “The agencies would be dealing with abuse and neglect cases exactly the same from one culture to another.”

With reports from Kim Mackrael and John Allemang

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