TheStar.com - Ontario - Report on child deaths out today
October 01, 2008
Theresa Boyle Staff Reporter
Wholesale changes to the way Ontario child deaths are medically investigated are expected to be recommended today by a commission probing serious flaws in the system that led to wrongful prosecutions of parents and caregivers.
The final report of the Public Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology, to be released at noon by Commissioner Stephen Goudge, will aim to ensure that no one in future will be charged, convicted or have their family pulled apart because of faulty pathology.
"I think it will (recommend) a major overhaul. It's way overdue," remarked Peter Wardle, a lawyer representing wronged individuals as a result of botched investigations into the deaths of Ontario children between 1991 and 2001.
The Canadian Press has learned the 1,000-page report contains harsh criticism of disgraced pathologist Dr. Charles Smith and his superiors, former chief coroner Dr. Jim Young and former deputy chief coroner Dr. Jim Cairns.
The inquiry was prompted by mistakes made by Smith in 20 child-death investigations. His errors included bungling autopsies, misdiagnosing causes of death, overstating his expertise and jumping to conclusions about family members based on their socio-economic status.
Wardle is anticipating a call for major changes to the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario to ensure more checks and balances in child-death investigations. He wants to see a committee created that would be responsible for oversight of the coroner's office.
While the commission can't assign blame, it can point to critical failures in the system, noted Harold Levy, a lawyer and former Star reporter who is researching a book and writing a blog about the saga.
"Justice Goudge must provide us with his unfettered views on the actions or failures to act – of the institutions and people who were supposed to protect us," Levy said.
Kathryn Clarke, spokesperson for the regulatory College of Physicians and Surgeons, said Smith no longer has a licence to practise in Ontario. It expired in August and he didn't renew it. She said the college is still investigating allegations of professional misconduct by Smith.
Goudge is expected to address the use of expert witnesses in the criminal courts, in particular those from medical fields. Courts put too much stock in expert witnesses and give them too much free rein, the inquiry heard.
"My number-one choice is a requirement that a criminal charge can never be laid against a parent or caregiver (based solely on) the mere opinion of a pathologist," Levy said.
The recurring mistakes of Smith and others in the forensic pathology system led to some parents and caregivers spending months, even years, behind bars, and having surviving children removed from their custody, sometimes permanently. Families spent life savings trying to defend themselves.