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A developmentally delayed teenager suffering from schizophrenia and fetal alcohol syndrome has pleaded guilty to setting a fire that killed two people in her Lindsay-area foster home.
The girl, who was 17 when she set the Feb. 24 fire, stood in court and uttered a faint “yeah” when her defence lawyer, David Hodson, asked if she was guilty of manslaughter and arson causing bodily harm.
In an agreed statement of facts, Cobourg provincial court heard the tragic story of the teen’s attempt to rescue two caregivers and a foster child trapped in a second-floor bedroom.
“You tried to save them, right?” Hodson asked the teen, who stood in the prisoner’s box before Justice J.A. Payne.
“Yeah, I tried to,” the heavy-set girl replied in a whisper.
Chantal Finbow sobbed quietly as Crown attorney Sarah Repka told court how Finbow’s daughter, Kassy, 14, succumbed to smoke inhalation in the rural foster home on Quaker Rd. in Oakwood, Ont.
Caregiver Andrea Reid, 43, was declared brain-dead at a Lindsay hospital Feb. 25. She was kept on life support for another day as a candidate for organ donation.
Caregiver Sheila Triggs survived, but suffered carbon monoxide poisoning, was intubated and spent four days in intensive care.
The girl, who can’t be identified because she is being tried as a youth, is now 18. She faces a maximum three years in youth custody and will be sentenced in February. An assessment will determine if she qualifies for a court-ordered intensive rehabilitation program.
The court heard a description of events that mirrored an exclusive Star story this month that quoted Triggs and other caregivers who survived or witnessed the blaze.
The girl, who is Indigenous, had recently changed medication, which made her more alert and prone to “outbursts and temper tantrums,” the court heard. She smoked and conducted smudging ceremonies with sage grass, so caregivers sometimes let her keep a lighter.
On Feb. 24, she was upset to learn she wouldn’t be going back home, to a reserve almost 2,000 kilometres away, when she turned 18.
She flew into a rage and pushed Triggs to the floor. Caregivers then withdrew with Kassy to an upstairs bedroom to let the girl cool off.
Downstairs, the girl used her lighter to set fire to books on a shelf, cardboard on a wall, and a couch, court heard. As the flames spread, she pulled the fire alarm to alert those upstairs.
Reid had called police. When they heard the alarm, they initially thought it was a hoax.
The upstairs bedroom quickly filled with smoke and the caregivers and Kassy ran to a window that was too small to squeeze out of. The court did not hear about a bolted sliding-glass window in the room, which Triggs told the Star they couldn’t break. The bolted window has raised questions about fire code standards for group homes and foster homes in Ontario.
After pulling the alarm, the girl ran outside, and fell to her hands and knees crying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” court heard.
By the time paramedics arrived, Kassy and Reid had collapsed in the bedroom. Triggs was left screaming for help at the small window. Firefighters rescued Triggs and used thermal imaging cameras to find Reid and Kassy unconscious on the floor.
“It’s the start of the healing process,” Hodson said after the hearing. “This is a tragic situation for everyone, including the young person,” he added, referring to his client.
The fire triggered investigations by police, government officials, children’s aid societies and the Star. They reveal a child protection system that doesn’t know if minimal standards of care are being met, has no qualifications for caregivers and is governed by a children’s ministry scrambling to perform its oversight role.
The province does not know how many children are being cared for in its 389 licenced group homes. At the end of September 2017, the group homes had 2,914 beds, almost one-third operated by private, for-profit companies. Another 2,005 beds were in foster homes run by companies, where the limit is four kids to a home.
Children taken from abusive or neglectful parents are usually placed in group homes as a last resort, when foster parents can’t deal with them. Most are treated with psychotropic drugs and are left largely in the care of workers who typically start at barely above the minimum wage, with no benefits.
In a 2016 report, a government-appointed panel of experts lambasted a system where the lowest paid, least qualified staff work with kids with the highest needs. The kids suffer from the trauma of abuse and abandonment, compounded by psychiatric and developmental disabilities.
At the site of the Quaker Rd. fire were two houses that operated as group homes for years. They were converted to foster homes run by a company called Connor Homes in September 2016.
A Star investigation found both homes were the site of almost daily violence in 2015-16. An analysis by the Ontario Child Advocate, released Tuesday, found young people in residential care homes were physically restrained 2,230 times by caregivers in a three-month period in 2014. The advocate, Irwin Elman, called that number “troubling.”
The province has been criticized for unveiling a blueprint that won’t see reforms fully implemented until 2025. They include tougher group-home inspections, minimum standards of care, better oversight, and reducing the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous children in care.
Theresa Stevens, executive director of the Association of Native Child and Family Services of Ontario, accused the government of dragging its heels. She notes that scores of Indigenous children from northern communities are sent thousands of kilometres away because of a lack of resources in the North.
“We can’t afford to wait another eight years before those resources are developed,” Stevens said in a recent interview.
In a statement to the Star last week, Children’s Minister Michael Coteau called the Quaker Rd. fire “an unimaginable tragedy.” He made clear the timetable for reforms would not be accelerated, but said much of the work is underway.
“We aren’t simply improving an old system, we are building a system that has taken a patchwork approach to care for years.”
By Laurie Monsebraten and Sandro Contenta
12 December 2017