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Could Quebec child services have stopped the Shafia deaths?

Mohammad Shafia (front) and Tooba Yahya are escorted into the Frontenac County courthouse in Kingston, Ontario on Friday, January 27, 2012.


The alarm bells began ringing in May, 2008.

Sahar Shafia, then 16 years old, confided to a teacher at her high school that she had attempted to kill herself, and that her older brother had attacked her with scissors.

It was the first signal of the Shafia sisters' profound unhappiness that over the next 13 months would catch the attention of school authorities, police investigators and skilled social workers trained in the detection of abuse and fear.

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The alarms were ringing again on April 17, 2009, when police arrived at the Shafias' comfortable Montreal home in answer to a series of emergency calls. The oldest sister, Zainab, had gone missing, prompting her brother Hamed to twice call 911. In fact, the expensively dressed young woman had sought refuge in a women's shelter, determined to break away from the strictures of home and the threats of a brother who considered her behaviour immoral.

On June 30, 2009, 19-year-old Zainab was found dead in a submerged car in Kingston, Ont., alongside her sisters Sahar, 17, and Geeti, 13, as well as their father's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad.

The teenagers' parents, Mohammad Shafia and Tooba Mohammad Yahya, as well as their brother Hamed, 21, are accused of first-degree murder in the deaths. After three months of testimony in a Kingston, Ont., courtroom, in a trial that has riveted the country, the jury is now deliberating on their innocence or guilt.

But the trial has also raised vexing questions about the ability of Quebec's child-protection system to intervene after the girls' repeated cries for help. Could the well-meaning intentions of policy-makers – who must balance protection of vulnerable children with the sanctity of the family unit – turn into a form of abandonment?

The testimony is being followed by Quebec child-protection authorities, said Judith Laurier, a spokeswoman for L'association des centres jeunesse du Quebec, the umbrella organization for the province's youth-protection agencies. She said she could not comment on the particulars of the case. But she said it was likely her organization would study the Shafia case to see if it might have been handled better.

"If a mistake was made – if, if, if – it's important for us to make a revision of the situation," she said.

On April 17, 2009, a neighbour of the Shafias called 911, the trial was told. He reported that four of the younger children, including Sahar and Geeti, were out in the street: They said they were too scared to be around their father, Mohammad Shafia – a prosperous Afghan businessman who'd brought his large family to Canada in 2007 – when he returned home and learned of his daughter's flight. According to a police officer who responded to the call, the children reported abuse and violence in the home.

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When their father returned, the officer testified, "the demeanour of the children changed." They lost their previous openness. One of the daughters recanted what she had previously said.

The officer still thought there were grounds for laying charges. But the protocol under Quebec's Youth Protection Act is that this decision is left up to the child-protection authorities.

And so a child-protection worker, in the company of a Montreal police investigator who specializes in abuse cases, went to Antoine-de-Saint-Exupery High School on April 20 to speak with the Shafia children. The siblings cited only one instance when Hamed had used force, the trial was told. They also complained about their lack of freedom. This same highly controlled upbringing was what prompted Zainab to flee, she told the investigators.

Teenagers complaining about restrictive parents, accusations followed by recantations – it didn't seem like enough evidence to convince a judge that a court-imposed solution was worth the family disruptions it would cause. The file was closed. Shortly after the school year ended, three of the girls were dead.

In the Shafia case, a conflict between teenagers and parents has taken on new significance with the explosive addition of competing cultural values. According to the prosecution, the sisters died because they chose to behave in a more modern Canadian way than their patriarchal family leaders could tolerate.

That line of argument ends with an uncomfortable question: Did case workers miss cues of abuse and violence because they were too respectful of authoritarian traditions and behaviours?

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Child-welfare experts recognize that the cultural clash at the heart of the Shafia tragedy has fuelled concerns about immigrants' reluctance to adapt – particularly among conservative Muslims such as the Shafias. "I think most members of the public might think the problem is that we are being far too lenient with these families," said Nico Trocmé of McGill University's School of Social Work.

He disagrees. While he said he believes the cultural component of the case should be studied more closely, he wonders if the lack of decisive intervention has more to do with breakdowns in the child-protection system.

According to court testimony, the events of April, 2009 marked the second time the conflicts in the Shafia family had brought them to the attention of child-protection workers. A third incident, in June of 2009, prompted one of Sahar's teachers to reach out to authorities again.

Sahar was depressed and feared her father would beat her, when he returned from a business trip, because she had a boyfriend. The teacher testified that she called a child-protection office but was told they had no responsibility for Sahar because she was 17. As well, they apparently had no record of Sahar's previous involvement with a youth-protection social worker, a fact that would have raised a red flag.

"A social worker may feel they don't have enough to proceed to court on the first go-round, so they close the case," Prof. Trocmé said. "But if family members return to the agency with a similar concern, then you can say, 'Look, this is very worrying.'… Essentially you're gathering evidence you need to push your way forward even if the family isn't willing to accept intervention."

But in the Shafia case, it's possible that a connection was missed in the series of alerts about the Shafia family from school officials and police. Even if that's not so, there are other questions being raised about how the system may have failed the three teenagers.

"Was an unreasonable level of evidence required to start an investigation?" asked Wendy Thomson, director of McGill's School of Social Work. Prof. Thomson questioned why the sisters had to explain their situation in the presence of their parents. Sahar Shafia constantly went back and forth in describing her situation – but her denial to youth protection workers that anything was wrong carried more weight than her previous assertion to her teachers that she was in a desperate state.

Sahar "was very scared of her parents knowing about the report," social worker Jeanne Rowe testified. She twice interviewed Sahar at her school and also met with her family members. "She just denied everything… She was obviously extremely scared, she was crying profusely, she didn't stop crying."

While that is itself a warning sign, Ms. Rowe likely knew she couldn't persuade a judge to intervene as long as Sahar stuck to her denials. To protect both children and families from too much state intrusion, investigations in Quebec have to be carried out quickly – cases are resolved, they proceed to court or they are closed for lack of evidence. That well-intentioned decisiveness counted against the Shafia sisters: As the court heard, they were not in a good position to speak out fearlessly.

The urgency of the case was acknowledged straightaway when it was given a Code 1 grade in May, 2008. But an abuse case based on a brother throwing scissors at his sister may not be strong enough to warrant tearing a middle-class family apart, and throwing children into the imperfect world of foster homes and shelters.

"I really believe in the value of the family," said Madeleine Berard, director of youth protection at Batshaw Youth and Family Services, the anglophone Montreal agency that first dealt with the Shafia file in 2008. "If you're going to be removing a child from her natural environment, you have to have something really good to replace it with."

Counselling is the social-service alternative to locking up brothers and fathers in large numbers, and pulling daughters out of their family home. But that takes both the admission that there's a problem and a level of co-operation that the Shafias couldn't, or wouldn't, exhibit to the outside world.

With a report from Timothy Appleby in Kingston

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