B.C. to investigate toddler’s 2013 death in foster care

B.C.’s director of child welfare has launched an investigation into the death of 21-month Isabella Wiens more than two years after she was found dead in her crib at a Burnaby foster home.

Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux confirmed the investigation in a letter to NDP children’s critic Doug Donaldson.

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In the April 28 letter, Cadieux states that the director recently ordered a case review “based on new information that has come forward.”

She said a previous director of child welfare had looked at the circumstances of the case immediately following Isabella’s death on March 16, 2013, but determined, based on the information available at the time, that “the circumstances did not meet the criteria for a case review.”

Director’s case reviews usually focus on the actions of ministry staff and examine whether policy and standards were followed.

The deaths of children in government care are also reported to Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who has the authority to collect evidence and launch independent reviews.

Donaldson, who has repeatedly asked Cadieux about the case in the legislature, said the timing of the director’s case review raises troubling new questions. He noted that Isabella’s mother, Sara-Jane Wiens, recently launched a lawsuit against the province, the director and the foster parents. The suit alleges negligence and breach of duty, and claims that Isabella’s death was never properly investigated.

“Is there a cover-up going on?” Donaldson said. “Is this a rear-guard defensive action by the ministry to say, ‘Oh wait. We have new information. We will do a case review?’

“I mean, if the minister can’t clear the air, then those are the kinds of conclusions that are left out there.”

Cadieux was travelling Friday and unavailable for comment. But her deputy, Mark Sieben, said in an interview that the director of child welfare, Cory Heavener, as a statutory officer, decided to launch the review independently.

“This is ... her decision,” he said. “It’s not something that either myself or Minister Cadieux participate in. She advises us accordingly of what her decision is.”

He said Heavener was not the director at the time of Isabella’s death and has therefore approached the case and recent media coverage with a “new set of eyes.” She also has access to information, including the coroner’s report, that was unavailable within the first 30 days after Isabella’s death, he said.

The B.C. Coroners Service concluded its investigation on March 5, 2004, and classified the cause of Isabella’s death as undetermined. The coroner’s report states that, on the day of her death, Isabella was put down for a nap at 3 p.m. with a comforter draped over the crib to block out the light. Three hours later, she was found lying on her stomach with the comforter completely covering her head and body. She had stopped breathing and attempts to revive her failed, the report said.

An autopsy found healing injuries, including bruises on Isabella’s chin, forehead, face, arms and legs, as well as healing fractures in her left arm. “It was estimated that the fractures of the left arm occurred weeks to months prior to Isabella’s death,” the report said. “Where and how the fractures occurred could not be explained.”

The report noted that Isabella was “significantly delayed” in her gross motor skills, walked using a stool for support and frequently stumbled and fell.

The coroner made no recommendations.

In her letter to Donaldson, Cadieux said the ministry conducted an investigation of the foster home from March 2013 to July 2014.

The probe took more than a year to complete because the ministry had to await the results of other investigations, she said.

The home is now closed, but Cadieux has said in the legislature that the closing of a foster home does not always indicate that an investigation found something amiss.

“Sometimes … foster parents themselves choose not to continue to foster for any number of reasons of their own,” she said.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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