Siege of Shirley Street: two years later, still no answers

seige, children’s aid, halifax, standoff, human rights, constitutional rights, charter rights,
police force, excessive force, ns government, parents, child abduction, children and babies,

Siege of Shirley Street: two years later, still no answers

By HEATHER LASKEY- Chronicle Herald, May 5/06

Two years have passed since Halifax’s “siege of Shirley Street.” Two years this month since the police seizure of a five-month-old infant, the death of her grandmother, and the arrest of her parents.

Since that time, there has been a plethora of court proceedings – criminal trials, family court hearings, decisions and appeals. The parents are in prison and the toddler – as far as we know – is still in the custody of the Children’s Aid Society. It was the parents’ refusal to relinquish her to the CAS shortly after her birth which had led to the police action.

There is still unease among many people in this area about the use of a militarized police/SWAT team during the May 2004 events in what appeared to be a convenient opportunity to rehearse for a possible terrorist strike on the city. Many of us are also uneasy about the opaque powers of the CAS.

The CAS is a quasi-private, government-funded, not-for-profit organization which, though well-intentioned, is in effect answerable only to its board. This absence of public accountability is a comment you will hear even from other social workers. No formal explanation has been given to the public for why the CAS wanted the baby removed from her parents: “Client confidentiality” is the mantra used to hide behind this wall of silence.

As far as can be established, the apparent reason the newborn baby came to CAS attention was that her parents, Carline Vanden Elsen and Larry Finck, had previously run afoul of the legal system in Ontario by abducting children of their previous relationships. Neither had been accused of neglecting or abusing these children, and there was no suggestion before or after she was seized that the five-month-old nursing infant had been neglected or abused.

But it was clear that her parents had antagonized authorities by dissing the legal system and the CAS in Ontario, as they were to do here in Nova Scotia. Their behaviour may have been intensely annoying, block-headed and eccentric. It was, however, no justification for the state to condemn their baby to the damaging uncertainties of a childhood in the foster-care system. (One year ago, at the age of 17 months, she was already in her second placement, and it was officially recorded that she had been upset by her move, at the age of 12 months, from her first placement. We do not know what her present situation is).

As for the siege itself – the violent means employed to seize the baby were profoundly inappropriate. They could easily have resulted in her being injured or killed. They did lead to the death from heart failure of her grandmother, Mona Finck. The weaponry with which the Halifax police and the RCMP (according to their own testimony) were armed included semi-automatic sub-machine guns, and Taser guns. There was also the battering ram used in the middle of the night in a residential street against the home containing the five-month-old baby, her parents and frail grandmother. When the couple emerged after nearly three days with the body of Mrs. Finck on a stretcher, there was a melee in which a knife was used to cut a Snugli – with the infant in it! – from off the mother. Then a Taser gun was used to force her to remove her arms from under her body when she was lying on the sidewalk.

It would have seemed reasonable if the people responsible for ordering the attack had been charged with endangering life, but even calls for a public inquiry were ignored by the minister of justice. The Halifax police promised that there would be a formal review of the events. Two years on, and despite questions from Mayor Peter Kelly, there is still silence. There is a similar silence from the Mounties. These are not healthy signs in a democracy.

Last summer, a group of people, who wanted the whole business exposed to the air, got together to push for the inquiry. We wanted the public to be told what evidence of actual or potential harm had been presented to the Family Court to justify ordering the baby be taken from her parents, and why massive force had been used. The informal group included five independent and experienced journalists (Stephen Kimber, Kim Kierans, Ian Porter, Dulcie Conrad and myself) as well as Ray Kuszelewski, who had been Larry Finck’s Legal Aid lawyer; Joyce Dempsey, a neighbour of the Fincks; and Susan Stuttard, a retired professional.

We have been supported in our demands by a wider group of citizens, from engineers, nurses and lawyers to professors and social workers, all of them equally disturbed by the behaviour of police and government-associated agencies in these events. To quote a letter to this newspaper from Winifred Milne, the retired director of social services for the Nova Scotia Hospital, “a climate has been created which may put subsequent vulnerable children and families at further risk.”

None of us should forget a lesson of both Mount Cashell and the Indian residential schools: You cannot always trust the state to protect children; sometimes it can be the instrument of their destruction. It’s time we had a careful look at how we are dealing with our children deemed in need of state protection, and ask how we could do it better. One major step forward would be the creation of the post of an independent children’s advocate, a suggestion made to government by a group including Mrs. Milne – in the early 1960s!

It’s not too late to call or write to MLAs or to the minister of justice, requesting that a public inquiry be set up into the events around that baby’s seizure in May 2004 by the RCMP and Halifax police. And residents of HRM could write to or call their councillors, requesting that they push for the release of the police report. It’s the very least that is owed to the late Mona Finck, to her little granddaughter, and to all the children who may be taken into care.

Heather Laskey’s book The Children of the Poor Clares: The Story of an Irish Orphanage, published in Ireland in 1985, was the first to expose the abuse of children in church-run institutions. She also wrote and broadcast about the child immigration movement from Britain to Canada.

seige, children’s aid, halifax, standoff, human rights, constitutional rights, charter rights,
police force, excessive force, ns government, parents, child abduction, children and babies,