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He was just 3, described by a next-door neighbour the way those of such tender years are invariably described -- "incredible, always smiling, always happy."

He had lived in the two-storey detached house on Frazer Street in Welland, Ont., since October.

She is 14, and, The Globe and Mail has learned, developmentally handicapped. She had just arrived at the house.

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They lived, for that brief time, in a foster home regarded by local child-welfare groups as so sterling that, as Brian Hillier, executive director of the Children's Aid Society of Haldimand and Norfolk said yesterday, it is considered "a go-to" place for the agency. "This is an excellent foster home," Mr. Hillier said. "I had, and I continue to have, a high degree of trust in the home."

These should not have been ingredients for a tragedy, but they were: On Thursday morning, Niagara Regional Police responding to a 911 call found the little boy VSA, or vital signs absent, and soon after arrested and charged the teenaged girl with first-degree murder.

A postmortem has revealed the boy was suffocated.

As The Globe reported yesterday, both the boy and the girl accused of killing him were clients of local children's aid societies.

The girl is a Crown ward of the Family and Children's Services Niagara, or FACS Niagara, the agency's executive director, Bill Charron, confirmed yesterday. "The young lady is a ward of ours," Mr. Charron said, "and we're ensuring she gets the appropriate legal representation and that we support her in any way we can."

Though in the home on a "temporary placement," pending a court decision about his custody, the boy had been living there since October, and was well known to the foster mother there.

"This was his placement," Mr. Hillier said. "It was our little guy and this is the kind of foster home that would be [emotionally]wiped out by this."

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Both executive directors said their staff have been devastated by the boy's death.

"It is a terrible day," Mr. Hiller told The Globe. "It's the nightmare that all CASes absolutely dread. . . . We're a smaller agency, and our staff have a very strong connection to our kids and our families. . . . There are staff all over this place in tears."

While police continue their probe, the office of the Ontario coroner is keeping a close eye on the case.

"We are aware of the death and that care was being given to both these children by CASes," deputy chief coroner Dr. Jim Cairns said yesterday in a telephone interview. He said his office is actively probing what role the CASes did or didn't play in the events leading up to the little boy's death.

However, whether the results of the coroner's probe -- which Dr. Cairns said will be complete within three weeks -- will be made public immediately depends on the criminal investigation.

It is an arm of the coroner's office, the pediatric death review committee, that provides the only independent review of deaths of children in CAS care.

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Mr. Charron wouldn't comment on the specifics of the girl's placement at the home, but said that, generally, it is agency practice to share with foster parents any psychiatric reports and relevant information so that "they understand what the youngster is all about and how to cope."

He said FACS Niagara is "doing a very thorough review of every aspect, to see what, if anything, we missed" and what might be learned to prevent something like this happening again.

"I've been 30 years in child welfare," Mr. Charron said, "and it's the first time I've ever come across a situation like this. Every agency has situations where children are killed or injured, but this is the first time a child in our care has been charged with this type of offence."

While Mr. Charron's first thought was for the little boy's parents, Mr. Hillier's was for the foster mother his agency regularly has used for at least five years and for the woman he described as "a much-loved foster parent."

The confidentiality provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act forbid identification of either the little boy or the teenager.

Following a brief court appearance yesterday at which the girl was remanded into custody, her lawyer said there was no decision yet on how to plead.

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