09/17/2013 04:05 EDT | Updated 11/16/2013 05:12 EST

B.C. Children's Watchdog Report: Aboriginal Girl Abused In Grandparents' Care After Transfer

VICTORIA - British Columbia's children's ministry handed cash to a drug addicted, abusive grandfather with 70 criminal convictions to help him pay for an unescorted flight to Saskatchewan with his vulnerable two-year-old granddaughter.

The grandfather used the flight money to buy drugs, said a report released Tuesday by B.C.'s independent representative for children and youth.

The man was later convicted of failing to provide the girl with the necessities of life and sentenced to three years in prison.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond's 46-page report, "Out of Sight," prompted immediate reactions from the provincial governments in B.C. and Saskatchewan, with both ministers responsible for children's care vowing to improve the safety of children who are transferred across provincial and territorial boundaries.

Turpel-Lafond said it's a miracle the aboriginal girl, who now is eight years old and in foster care, is still alive after the horrific treatment she received for 18 months from her grandfather and others who branded her an evil child and left her locked in a furnace room in the basement of a home in the Fort Qu'Appelle area, east of Regina, in 2008.

Police were called to the home in July 2008 to investigate concerns by neighbours and found the child malnourished, injured with a fractured collar bone, bruised with multiple scars on her head. The judge at the trial of the grandfather and his spouse said: "A person looking at the event is bound to feel a sense of horror."

Turpel-Lafond's report found that B.C.'s child welfare system failed to adequately protect the girl because the Children and Family Development Ministry permitted her transfer from B.C. government care to Saskatchewan without ensuring her safety and protection.

The report makes two recommendations, including ensuring B.C. does a better job assessing and recommending out of province placements for children in care and that Canada's provinces and territories review current child-transfer protocols to ensure children and families are protected.

Turpel-Lafond also called on the federal government to take on a role beyond providing provinces and territories with money to improve the well-being of aboriginal children in the care of provincial and territorial governments.

"We have a really serious issue where the most vulnerable children may be left with the least quality service," she said at a news conference following the release of her report.

Turpel-Lafond referred to a separate case where two B.C. social workers accompanied a B.C. child to China, but in the Saskatchewan investigation, the two-year-old aboriginal girl was placed in the care of an addicted grandfather with a lengthy criminal record that included assault convictions.

"For heaven's sakes, for First Nations children can't we have the same treatment?" she said.

Turpel-Lafond said the grandfather demanded two airplane tickets to Saskatchewan after hitchhiking to B.C.

She said he was given the cash for the flights, and the grandfather promptly used some of the money to buy codeine pills on the street. Turpel-Lafond said she doesn't know how the grandfather and the child eventually made it back to Saskatchewan.

"He came out by hitchhiking in July of that particular summer and then insisted with the ministry that he be paid the equivalent of two return tickets," said Turpel-Lafond. "The ministry paid that and he told our investigators later that he used some of those proceeds to buy street sold drugs as he was addicted to street drugs and at the time he was fully under the effect of those drugs."

She said policies and standards for placing vulnerable children in homes across Canada must undergo reviews to better support the needs of kids and families.

"This child's best interests were never taken seriously, and as a result she was left in a dangerous situation, severely traumatized and emotionally and physically injured."

Turpel-Lafond's report said the children's ministry in B.C. relied on an inadequate report on the grandfather's criminal and parenting background when it decided to allow the child to be sent to Saskatchewan with the grandfather.

B.C.'s children's minister Stephanie Cadieux said the government accepts the recommendations in Turpel-Lafond's report, and acknowledged that the provinces and territories still need to work out details of protocols surrounding transfers of children in government care, including sending B.C. social workers to inspect out-of-province living arrangements.

"We don't have authority to just walk into another jurisdiction," said Cadieux. "So, we do need to go in and work with the other jurisdictions for permission to go in and have that happen."

Saskatchewan's social services minister June Draude said Turpel-Lafond's report will cause concerns in Saskatchewan because the public wants to know children are protected.

"When I read that report and when the majority of people in Saskatchewan read that tomorrow, they're going to shake their heads and say 'My gosh, how can that happen,'" Draude said at the Regina legislature. "Some of things are very basic, like changing the home checks, yes, that's something that we have to do. The things like the criminal record checks, yes, we have to do that. Better home inspections, yes, we have to do that."

The Saskatchewan aboriginal child and family services agency connected to the report issued a statement, saying it has undergone a major reorganization and is preparing its own report.

"Since this horrific incident in 2007-2008, all front line staff, senior management, and the entire Board of Directors have been replaced," said the statement from Qu'Appelle Beardy's & Okemasis Child and Family Services. "It is the ultimate goal of QBO CFS to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again. By ensuring that a positive relationship between First Nations Child and Family Services Agencies and the Ministry of Social Services exists, it is our belief we can achieve this goal."

The girl, who can't be named, weighed just 12.2 kilograms when she was removed from her grandfather's home. She was almost 13.1 kilograms when she arrived at the home 18 months prior.

— With files from Jennifer Graham

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the girl died.

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