WINNIPEG — A Manitoba woman, who by her own lawyer’s account should never have been given foster care of her great-nephew, was sentenced Tuesday to 18 months of house arrest in the boy’s death.
The fact that Shirley Guimond will not spend any time in jail outraged Gage Guimond’s mother.
“It’s just saying that it’s OK to kill an innocent child because they can’t be here to defend themselves,” Natasha Guimond said as she cried outside court. “God will eventually decide Shirley’s fate. We obviously can’t rely on Manitoba’s legal system.”
Gage, who was 2, was taken from his mother by child welfare workers. He and another child were placed with his great-aunt in the summer of 2007 despite the fact that she had a criminal record and did not ask to take care of the children.
Her lawyer, Saul Simmonds, told court in April that the province’s child-welfare system should be on trial instead of his client. He suggested she was pressured into accepting the kids and that the system strives to keep aboriginal foster children with relatives or in other aboriginal homes — even if those homes are not safe.
Shirley Guimond had suffered physical and sexual abuse since she was eight years old, Simmonds said, and was in no position to take up foster care. She had “borderline intellectual capacity,” according to a medical expert.
Court heard that shortly after the children were put in her Winnipeg home, she started hitting them repeatedly. Then one day, when coming home from a shopping trip, she placed Gage on a chair at the top of some stairs while she rushed to the bathroom.
Gage tumbled down the stairs, hit his head and went into a coma. He died in hospital.
Guimond was convicted of assault causing bodily harm for hitting the child and was sentenced last fall to time served after spending 68 days in custody. Tuesday’s sentence was on one count of failing to provide the necessities of life and focused only on the fall that killed Gage.
The Crown sought a two-year jail sentence, but provincial court Judge Lee Ann Martin accepted a defence proposal for house arrest. She said the death was “a result of bad judgment in a moment of haste”.
Guimond did call 911, the judge noted, and tried to resuscitate the toddler.
“She has also accepted responsibility for his death and expressed her remorse,” Martin said.
Gage’s death was one of several cases that raised questions about the Manitoba government’s move to hand over care of aboriginal foster children to native-run regional authorities. Critics say too much emphasis is placed on cultural concerns at the expense of safety. The controversy prompted the NDP government in 2008 to change its legislation to specify that a child’s safety is given higher priority than cultural or family ties.
His death also followed the high-profile case of Phoenix Sinclair, a five-year-old girl who spent most of her life in foster care and was killed after child welfare workers returned her to her mother. Samantha Kematch and her boyfriend were convicted of murdering the girl in the basement of their home on the Fisher River reserve north of Winnipeg following months of abuse and neglect.
Family Services Minister Gord Mackintosh said the Crown will probably consider an appeal, and added he was disappointed with the sentence.
“I think it’s very important that there be a clear message to the public about the sanctity of a child’s life, and the importance of children and the safety of children in our community,” he said.
The system failed Guimond, Mackintosh conceded, but changes have been put in place to prevent such tragedies in the future.
“We’re looking at significant changes to the (child welfare) budget, significant changes to the standards. Many standards have been enhanced.”