Lawrie McFarlane: Judge’s lapse should not be brushed aside

Two years ago, Justice Paul Walker of the B.C. Supreme Court handed down one of the most scathing indictments ever brought against a government agency. Specifically, he found that the province’s child-protection service abused its authority by allowing a father to molest his child while the toddler was in government care.

Walker called this failure egregious, negligent and a breach of duty. And he called out the offending social workers, by name or by title, alleging they had demonstrated “a reckless disregard for their obligation to protect children.”

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Last week, the other shoe dropped. The B.C. Court of Appeal overturned that judgment, in a ruling every bit as scathing as Walker’s.

The case dates back to 2009. In the midst of a nasty divorce proceeding, there were duelling claims by a husband and wife that each had physically abused the other. The police were called in, and eventually decided there was no evidence of criminal conduct by the husband.

The wife then alleged her husband sexually abused one of their children. She later changed her story and alleged he assaulted several of the youngsters.

The husband claimed his wife had mental-health issues, and she made the same complaint about him. In short, a hellishly tangled scene.

Just reading the Appeal Court’s ruling brings home the sheer complexity of the case, and the near impossibility of ascertaining, with any certainty, where the truth lay. Here, if ever, was a situation that cried out for caution.

Nevertheless, into this mess strode Walker, broadcasting certainty in the midst of confusion. And he sided unambiguously with the mother, while scarifying in intemperate language those social workers who earned his disfavour.

Now, we need to pause here. Appeal courts are just as capable of getting it wrong as lower courts. There is always the possibility that the Supreme Court of Canada, if the case goes that far, might side with Walker.

Yet this much we can be certain of. The Appeal Court found that Walker admitted, and based much of his reasoning on, the testimony of an “expert witness” who stands revealed as, quite simply, a fraud.

This woman — Claire Reeves — claimed to be a licensed psychologist and an expert on child sexual abuse who had testified 52 times as an expert witness in cases across the United States and Canada. Not one word of that is true.

Reeves’ university degrees were all obtained from fake universities that sell diplomas for cash. Here is how her PhD program is advertised online: “This program offers you an opportunity to earn a doctorate’s degree [sic] based on your work or life experience, without requiring you to take admission exams, attend classes, or study course books.” So much for her qualifications.

Then a review of expert-witness databases back to 1980 found not 52 cases where she had testified, but only three, and in one of those her testimony was rejected as unbelievable and non-credible.

She never interviewed either the children or the father before forming her conclusions, a failing that should have sent up red flags.

So several professional lives were put at risk, one social worker received death threats at home, and the father was branded a child abuser, in large part on the advice of a fraud.

Where is their compensation? When do they get an apology?

And just as important, how do we stop this happening again? The Appeal Court found that Walker failed in his role as “gatekeeper” by allowing Reese to testify despite complaints by government lawyers that her qualifications were spurious.

In other professions, failures of this kind can have career-ending consequences. It would be comforting to imagine that here, but like the Mississippi, the system keeps rolling along.

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