Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Review all pathologist's cases: experts (2oo8)

Dr. Charles Smith

Tom Blackwell, National Post Published: Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Authorities should consider reviewing every child-welfare case where Dr. Charles Smith played a key role--and return apprehended children to their parents if appropriate, two leading experts have urged.

Most of the controversy around the Ontario pathologist's flawed child-death investigations has stemmed from the wrongful homicide prosecutions his opinions triggered. But in a paper commissioned by the Goudge judicial inquiry, professors at Queen's and McGill universities discuss another scenario: parents whose surviving children were taken from them because Dr. Smith erroneously concluded they killed another offspring.

"If forensic pediatric pathology reports are unreliable, there are likely to be profound implications in the child protection system," said the paper by Nick Bala and Nico Trocme.

Prof. Bala is a family law expert at Queen's and Prof. Trocme, a social-work faculty member at McGill, is a leading expert in child abuse.

They note that a review of child-welfare cases was conducted in Britain after a similar affair involving a pediatrician's discredited court testimony. Children were reunited with their parents in two of the doctor's cases.

It is unclear how many, if any, siblings apprehended after deaths that Dr. Smith investigated are still in the care of children's aid societies here. If some are and it is in their interests to rejoin their families, "the agency should … take all reasonable steps to support the reunification of parents and child," the report says.

However, if the children have already been adopted, it would be too traumatizing to remove them from that family now. It might be beneficial, though, to allow the birth parents some access to the children, the professors say.

The inquiry was called after an outside review found that Dr. Smith made significant errors in 20 of 45 criminally suspicious child deaths he investigated between 1991 and 2001. Parents and caregivers were charged with homicide offences in most deaths, though many have since been cleared. In at least seven of those cases, children's aid societies seized other children from the parents following the death. In some instances, they were returned to their families. In others, it is unclear from case summaries produced by the inquiry what happened to the siblings after being removed.

When the baby known as Joshua died at age four months in 1996 and his mother, Sherry Sherrett, was charged with first-degree murder, the infant's brother was apprehended and later adopted out. Authorities also tried, unsuccessfully, to seize another child born to Ms. Sherrett in 2005. Ms. Sherrett was eventually found guilty of the lesser offence of infanticide but is fighting to have that conviction overturned in light of Dr. Smith's questioned evidence.

The paper submitted to the inquiry outlines three other cases where the pathologist testified at hearings held to determine if a child should be taken from the parents.

In one instance, Dr. Smith's testimony was instrumental at a 1995 case involving the future of a newborn baby. The father had been convicted of manslaughter 10 years earlier in the death of another child, largely based on the pathologist's evidence, though other witnesses described him as being of a "gentle nature" and his wife insisted he was innocent. At the 1995 hearing, Dr. Smith reiterated his earlier testimony, and the newborn was removed from the parents' care.

The paper does not criticize the children's aid societies.


No comments: