An Edmonton woman admits she killed her four-year-old niece nearly three years ago while caring for the girl and her five siblings under an arrangement known as kinship care.
The 26-year-old woman, originally charged with second-degree murder, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in an Edmonton courtroom Monday morning.
The dead child cannot be named according to provincial legislation. CBC News is not naming the accused to prevent identification of the child.
In an agreed statement of facts, the court heard the woman, who had no children of her own, was awarded custody of her brother's six high-needs children — the youngest being three months and the oldest aged seven — by Alberta Children and Youth Services in August 2008.
The children had previously lived on the Buffalo Lake Métis Settlement 200 kilometres northeast of Edmonton and were apprehended by the courts in July 2007 after it was determined the biological parents were incapable of caring for them.
Autopsy showed extensive bruising
The woman, her common-law husband and the children lived in a house paid for by the province in west Edmonton.
On Jan. 13, 2009, the husband called emergency personnel to the home. They found the girl, two weeks from her fifth birthday, dead on the floor of her bedroom, clothed only in a diaper.
The statement does not indicate how the girl died, but an autopsy revealed the girl suffered a severe brain injury caused by tremendous blunt force, three or four days prior to her death.
The autopsy also showed extensive bruising on the girl's head, chest, legs, arms, face and neck. She also had two fractured ribs.
Instead of getting medical help, the aunt tried to treat her niece at home with children's cough syrup.
Girl's life could have been saved
A doctor concluded that if the girl had received prompt medical attention it's possible her life could have been saved.
Shortly after the statement was submitted, a sentencing hearing began before Associate Chief Justice John Rooke.
Prosecutor Mark Huyser-Wierenga recommended the woman serve 12 years in prison while defence lawyer Lisa Trach argued the sentence should be limited to time served.
Child abuse expert Dr. Melanie Lewis testified Monday afternoon that the little girl's body and face were covered in bruises when she was found by paramedics.
Some of the bruises looked like finger marks. Two of the child's ribs were broken, and her lips were black from dehydration. Lewis believes the pre-schooler was hit in the head repeatedly.
"If intervention had come in a timely fashion, the outcome may have been altered," she testified.
'No experience as a parent'
A psychological assessment report, obtained by CBC News from the defence with permission of the accused, revealed the woman was raised in an abusive home where drugs, alcohol and solvents were used regularly.
The woman had developed an addiction to painkillers by the time she was 13.
At age 24, she was entrusted by the province to take custody of her brother's high-needs children under the province's "Kinship Care" program, which aims to house children with family members.
"She came in as a young parent, having no experience as a parent, taking on these troubled children with a distorted sense of competency," psychologist Les Block wrote in his assessment.
"Taking on such an onerous undertaking seems unrealistic and impractical, given her relative inexperience in parenting, her young age, unresolved personal problems, unstable spousal circumstances and substance abuse problems.
"The six children had special needs and would be taxing to even qualified foster parents," he said.
The woman told Block the children's biological mother was a crack cocaine addict and used the drug through her pregnancies.
"[The woman] had been promised supports and assistance with these children, but this seemed to be lacking," Block said. "There was minimal actual contact from Alberta Child and Family Services, and no respite or assistance with the children."
Block is scheduled to testify for the defence.