MONTREAL – When the Shafia girls went looking for help from youth-protection officials three years ago, their case was hampered by a uniquely Canadian bureaucratic snafu.
Some of their pleas were lost in translation. Or, more precisely, their different complaints were handled by separate English- and French-language agencies that failed to share case information.
Youth protection is divided by language in Montreal, with one agency handling English complaints and the other handling ones in French and other languages.
Until the two agencies introduced a joint registry, there was no way for them to share information. That new information-sharing system came into effect in May 2009 — one month after the Shafia girls lodged their final complaint.
When the French-language agency was alerted in April 2009, it didn’t know that its English counterpart had investigated a similar complaint by the Shafia sisters the previous year. Officials now say the case would have been dealt with differently had the new system already been in place.
One youth-protection official said the file would have been handled as a repeat issue, which would have raised additional alarm bells for investigators.
“When you have a recurrence of a situation and it’s one year and things have not gotten better, if anything they’ve gotten worse, you don’t only have one child but more complaining about the situation and being afraid — it certainly heightens our concerns,” Madeleine Berard, director of youth protection at Batshaw Youth and Family Services, the English institution, said in an interview.
Soon after that last complaint, police in Kingston, Ont. would find the bodies of Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti Shafia, 13, along with Rona Amir Mohammad, 52 in a car at the bottom of the Rideau Canal on June 30, 2009. On Sunday, Mohammad Shafia, 58, his wife Tooba Yahya, 42, and their son Hamed, 21, were found guilty of four counts of the first-degree murder of their family members.
The sensational trial heard from teachers, vice-principals, police officers, social workers and youth protection workers who intervened at various times as the girls made allegations of verbal, emotional and physical abuse they suffered.
When Batshaw received the initial complaint, in 2008, Berard said investigators began working on the file the day they got the complaint.
But Berard said they were lacking the evidence of abuse or psychological distress they needed to follow through, given that Sahar Shafia later recanted what she had told officials.
“Based on what the child was saying and the other evidence we were able to gather, there was really no way for us to have a legal mandate to continue at that time,” Berard said.
The trial heard that in April 2009, the children complained again. They called 911 when Zainab went to stay at a women’s shelter and the children feared their father’s response. That file was handled in the French system, by Centre Jeunesse de Montreal.
Berard said a full internal review has been conducted. It showed that youth-protection services acted according to the existing protocols.
Since then, there have been policy changes, in addition to the new database.
Case workers have been given different criteria to follow when producing reports. Because culture played a role in the Shafia case, Berard said the agency is now meeting with cultural leaders and consultants, advocating for better education in those communities.
“What is new in this particular situation is that the simple idea of a family going to that extreme of killing your own children is not something that we are used to working with,” Berard said, adding it will impact the agency’s work going forward.
“Could we have been more clairvoyant in predicting what (they) would do? I think it is really, really foreign to our way of thinking but it is less foreign now because we’ve been exposed to it and we certainly have learned a terrible lesson.”
The Quebec government remained tight-lipped on the case Monday, citing the possibility of an appeal and privacy issues, and it declined to comment on whether more policy changes were necessary after the Shafia experience.
But one expert said there isn’t a need for wide-ranging changes.
“Cases like this which are so exceptional, dreadful and emotional are not a good springboard for thoughtful policy,” said Wendy Thomson, director of McGill University’s School of Social Work.
Knee-jerk reactions don’t tend to lead to sensible results, she noted.
“The law in Quebec is seen as a good youth protection act. The system is generally well regarded,” Thomson said. “It’s had a long history of mandatory reporting and it’s a highly professionalized service so I wouldn’t leap to the conclusion it needs a complete revamp at all.”