Bioethicist says Stephan conviction highlights a need for reporting of neglect
CALGARY – The meningitis death of a 19-month-old boy who suffered for weeks while his parents treated him with home remedies is calling attention to the responsibilities of those who know about child abuse or neglect, but don't report it.
Alberta's Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act says anyone with "reasonable or probable grounds to believe that a child is in need of intervention" must report it, and that anyone who fails in their duty can be fined up to $2,000 or jailed for up to six months.
However, Justice Department spokesman Dan Laville admitted Thursday charges have never been laid under that specific section.
"This does not mean the Act is not being used for other purposes, it just means to date charges have not been laid under this section," Laville said in an email.
University of Calgary bioethicist Juliet Guichon said she wonders if the provision could apply in the death of Ezekiel Stephan.
"It looks as though there were opportunities for other adults to help this child and the question is: Did they call? And if they didn't call, what will be the consequence? Why is this child dead?" Guichon asked.
"I do believe it takes a village to raise a child and somebody should have taken that child from the mother's arms and if they were too scared to do that they should have called 911 – it's not that hard."
David and Collet Stephan were found guilty this week of failing to provide the necessaries of life for their son Ezekiel. Believing he had croup, they treated him with natural medicines such as hot peppers, onions, garlic and horseradish for two and a half weeks before he later died.
The Crown said there was no doubt the Stephans loved their child, but didn't follow the standard of care as set by criminal law.
Court heard how the couple was warned by both a friend, who was a registered nurse, and a naturopathic doctor that the boy should be taken to a hospital. The College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta is investigating the actions of the naturopath, who has not commented since the trial.
The naturopath, Tracey Tannis, testified she was with a patient when a clinic worker interrupted to tell her a mother was on the phone asking about a treatment for meningitis.
She said she instructed the worker to tell the mother to "take the child to emergency right away," and then stayed by the phone long enough to confirm the message was relayed.
Tannis testified she never met the mother but the worker, Lexie Vataman, told court she introduced them when Collet Stephan later arrived at the clinic. She also said Tannis asked her to make up an echinacea mixture.
An Alberta Justice official said it isn't up to government to decide on further charges in the case.
"There are other parties, namely police and professional associations, that are responsible for investigating the conduct of third parties that may have been involved in this tragic situation," said press secretary Veronica Jubinville. "We cannot speculate on the result of any investigations that may be occurring."
Alberta's Human Services Department, which handles intervention cases, relies on help from the general public, said spokeswoman Kathy Telfer.
"Child intervention becomes involved when cases are brought to our attention by the child's community, which can include the medical community, police, neighbours or teachers."
Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, who brought to light sex crimes by his former junior hockey coach Graham James and is now an advocate for child-abuse victims, said in most cases there are usually people around who "have a gut feeling" about what is happening and don't report it.
"If your gut's telling you or the hair on the back of your neck is standing up, we need to ask questions."
Kennedy said it's fear that makes people not want to get involved and he wants the law that's on the books to be used more.
"I think we need accountability," he said. "I think that law is put in place for a reason.
"I think it's a critical role to make that call if we know a child's being hurt or we suspect a child's being hurt."
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