CHILLIWACK, B.C. — For months, an Indigenous boy and his little sister were subjected to what a British Columbia judge called “incomprehensible” abuse from the foster parents who were supposed to care for them and instead meted out torture, starvation and assaults that culminated in the boy being beaten to death.
Now the horrifying case has triggered a call for the resignation of the children’s minister, a vow from the children’s commissioner to conduct an inquiry and a promise from the premier that his government would do better.
Provincial court Judge Peter La Prairie in Chilliwack, B.C., sentenced the foster parents this month to 10 years in prison after they pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and manslaughter of the First Nation boy, 11, and aggravated assault of his sister, aged eight.
The violence was captured in hundreds of hours of video footage filmed inside the home.
“It is incomprehensible how someone can inflict such pain, suffering and violence on an innocent child,” Judge Peter La Prairie said in his June 16 ruling. “Their actions against these children were evil and inhumane.”
The name of the First Nation, the location and the names of all parties were banned by the courts to protect the identity of the children involved in the case.
Court documents show the last visit from a worker with the Ministry of Children and Family Development to the Indigenous couple’s home took place seven months before the boy was beaten to death in 2021 by the woman, who is related to the children’s biological mother.
The First Nations Leadership Council said Monday there has been an “ongoing lack of accountability” by the ministry in response to the case and it is calling for minister Mitzi Dean’s resignation and for the province to work with First Nations to eradicate the mistreatment of Indigenous children in care.
Cheryl Casimer, who’s on the political executive at First Nations Summit, said in an interview Monday that this is not an isolated incident and the group’s goal is for the government to take responsibility for its role in the case.
“Every time we ask for accountability, nothing happens and so maybe there needs to be a change in the leadership within that ministry,” she said.
Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, said her office is conducting a full investigation into the case, calling it “one of the most egregious situations” she had ever seen in the 46 years she has spent helping children.
“This is an unbelievably tragic story, and one that has frankly brought me to my knees as I try to imagine what this child, and their siblings, experienced,” she said in a statement Monday.
“I will do everything in my power as representative to ensure that we learn what happened and, most significantly, what needs to be done to ensure that the system is transformed so that this does not happen to any child, anywhere in this province, again.”
Dean declined an interview, but said in a statement Monday that the government “failed at every level” in this case. She vowed to make necessary systemic changes, including helping nations gain jurisdiction and provide services to First Nation children.
“I am heartbroken at what these children endured and I extend our deepest apologies and condolences to the family, friends and communities that have been impacted by this tragedy, including Indigenous Peoples across the province who have experienced and continue to experience the trauma of a broken child-welfare system,” she said.
Dean said the ministry is “fully supportive” of the representative’s investigation.
She did not comment on the calls for her resignation.
“We will address all recommendations to improve the safety of children and youth in care,” she said.
Content warning: material that some may find disturbing follows.
La Prairie said in his ruling that the children were tortured, starved and forced to eat their own feces, vomit and dog food. They were forced to undertake excessive exercise routines for hours, often with their eyes taped shut, while in diapers or naked.
They were also slapped, punched, kicked and whipped, with much of the abuse captured by video cameras inside the home.
The boy died in February 2021 after sustaining a traumatic brain injury during a beating by the woman, documents say. His sister was later examined and found to have multiple abrasions and bruises all over her body and injuries to her wrists and ankles from zip ties.
Police used a search warrant and found evidence including a 2×4 piece of wood the couple used to beat the children and 16,000 videos with about 400 hours of playing time, depicting months of abuse from 2020 to 2021.
“The level of violence depicted in the videos is incomprehensible,” La Prairie said in the ruling.
He noted the boy’s appearance in February 2021 was “particularly shocking,” likening it to a child from the Holocaust.
“It is inconceivable to understand how the abuse as depicted on the videos continued over a lengthy period of time, with the children in emaciated conditions and no one did anything,” he said. “These are issues that need to be addressed.”
Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the BC Assembly of First Nations said the abuse in this case was the “result of negligence and lack of systemic oversight.”
“The ministry must conduct a thorough systematic review of its child protection and guardianship policies, practices, and procedures pertaining to First Nations children and youth, and all child protection cases and placements involving First Nations families,” he said in a news release issued Monday.
B.C. Premier David Eby told an unrelated news conference that the impact of the case is being “profoundly” felt.
“Our social workers were supposed to be ensuring their safety and something went horrifically wrong here,” he said Monday. “Minister Dean and I are as horrified as First Nations leadership about what happened to these kids.”
Eby said the children’s ministry is doing a full review of the case. He said it served as a call for government to redouble its efforts to work with First Nations leadership to accelerate the process where Indigenous communities have the authority, jurisdiction and resources to support their own children.
“That’s where we are headed, that’s the work that (Dean) is leading and that’s what’s going to move us forward on this file and address these issues in the long term,” he said.