TORONTO - When a foster parent took in the three surviving siblings of a five-year-old boy who was starved to death by his grandparents, she was given no prior warning about their traumatic background nor was she told they'd just lost their brother.
The woman — who cannot be identified — told the inquest into Jeffrey Baldwin's death that his eight-year-old and six-year-old sisters and his four-year-old brother showed up looking "shell-shocked."
It took them months to reveal the full extent of the abuse they'd witnessed and experienced.
"They were told that if they told anyone, the (Children's Aid Society) would take them away and everyone would be mean and horrible to them," the foster mother recounted Monday on the witness stand, often growing emotional while describing the incidents that took place in those first few days.
The inquest's jury heard about the "hierarchy" that existed among the four siblings, with Jeffrey and his youngest sister at the very bottom — both referred to as "the pigs."
"I was told the children were coming from 'difficult' circumstances...But this was crazy to me. I remember saying to my husband 'Stephen King couldn't have made this stuff up, it was so horrific."
When Jeffrey died of complications of chronic starvation in 2002, he weighed 21 pounds — about the same as he did on his first birthday.
Jeffrey's grandparents — Elva Bottineau and Norman Kidman — were given custody of the boy and his three siblings despite both of them having previous convictions for child abuse.
The inquest is expected to determine whether enough changes have been made to the child protection system in the 11 years since Jeffrey died, or if there are more improvements that can be made to ensure no other child suffers his fate.
The foster mother who took in the surviving children said it was a year before they received any kind of therapy, each with separate therapists — a setup she felt wasn't as effective as having one expert deal with all three.
"I didn't think one was more important than the other two. I thought the sum was the most important thing," she said. "Therapy sooner would have been better."
CAUTION: CONTENTS THAT FOLLOW MAY DISTURB SOME READERS
The foster mother said the way in which the oldest and youngest children had been taught to look down upon their other two siblings was illustrated by how they protested when Jeffrey's sister sat at the dining table, or when she was allowed to play with the same toys as them.
"(The youngest sibling) asked where the 'pig wall' was in my house," she recalled. "I said 'We don't have pigs in this house we have people. He pointed at (his sister) and my youngest daughter and said 'Those two, they're the pigs."
At another point, while Jeffrey's sister was eating very quickly at the dining table — she had an insatiable appetite — the foster mother remembers the youngest child saying "if she pukes it she has to eat it right, cause at grandma's house that's what we did."
There were also times when the woman found Jeffrey's sister drinking from the toilet.
"It was something horrific to see a child drinking out of your toilet," she said, adding that the oldest sibling explained that her sister and Jeffrey "had to wash themselves and their underwear in the toilet, and that was grandma's idea."
The foster mother grimaced as she described how Jeffrey's abused sister arrived in her home with a distended belly, scabs all over her arms and legs and open oozing sores on her feet.
The woman also recounted instances where Jeffrey's mistreated sister described the physical abuse she was subjected to by her grandparents, including being whacked with a broom.
While blinking back tears, she described how the little girl said she was grateful, after arriving in the foster home, that "no one hits my head with Jeffrey's head."
In addition to the terrible treatment Jeffrey and his sister were subjected to — which included being locked away in their filthy, unheated room while their grandmother babysat a neighbour's child — the foster mother said all the four children were mistreated in some way by the adults that took care of them.
She said the oldest child told her about the "lickings" — spanking with a metal spoon — that their grandfather would subject them to.
"They lined up and had to remove their clothing and underpants. When I asked why they had to take off underpants they said it was so they wouldn't bleed on them," she recalled. "And they would watch the person in front of them."
The hate that the siblings were taught to feel for each other, however, slowly started to dissipate as they talked about what had gone on in their home, said the foster mother. The oldest sibling even began wondering if there had been anything she could have done to prevent Jeffrey's death, the woman said.
"She said she should have told someone to do something...she was sorry she wasn't nicer to him because he really wasn't a dog or a pig," the woman recalled.
"I told her she was the bravest child I had ever known…there was no responsibility that was hers."
Bottineau and Kidman were ultimately convicted of second-degree murder in Jeffrey's death and forcible confinement for their treatment of his sister.
The couple lived in their home with six other adults, one of them was James Mills, a boyfriend to one of Bottineau's daughters.
The inquest watched an hour-long video on Monday of the interview Mills gave to police after Jeffrey's death.
While Mills, who didn't pay rent in the home, tells a detective he thought the treatment of Jeffrey and his sister was deplorable, he also said Bottineau was a fit, if overworked, caregiver.
"I would say, 'those kids live like dogs'," he said of how Jeffrey and his sister were treated in the home which housed 12 people.
"I honestly am too shy to say anything to Elva after everything that she's done for me....So I just kinda held it all in. And I would say to (my girlfriend) Yvette and then she would sit there and get upset at me and go, 'what do you want me to do about it?'"
According to Mills, who admitted he didn't want to get kicked out of the house, his meek protests about Jeffrey's unbelievably skinny frame didn't do much.
"I told (Bottineau), I told her so many times, 'get help for him, get help for him.' She says 'no, because then it will ruin my cheque. Those kids are $600 to me a month.' Those were her exact words."
The inquest continues Tuesday.