The unbearable darkness of being
I have been writing about Jeffrey Baldwin off and on for more than three years, since shortly after his miserable death in his prison of a room in an east-end Toronto house on Nov. 30, 2002.
In that 42-month period, I knocked on the front door of the house, this in those early days before his grandparents were ever arrested, and was chased away by his obese, glowering and remarkably entitled grandmother, who later called police to complain about me; broke the story of how the Catholic Children's Aid Society had agreed to give custody of Jeffrey and his siblings to the grotesque grandparents without even checking its own files that detailed the pair's earlier, separate convictions for child abuse; covered much of the grandparents' criminal trial (they were found guilty of second-degree murder and will be formally sentenced on May 30); attended a tender memorial, organized by strangers, for the dead boy; and read and wrote about a searing report written by an external consultant, who described in crisp prose the ways the CCAS had failed Jeffrey.
For the longest time, I had a picture of the little boy on a wall of my home office and, later, a T-shirt with a blown-up version of the same photo.
I took them down a couple of weeks ago.
Jeffrey's grandparents, Elva Bottineau and Norman Kidman, are likely to pass the rest of their lives in prison — second-degree murder carries an automatic "life" sentence with only the parole ineligibility period still to be decided by the judge — but, as an outcome, this is so profoundly unsatisfactory as to evoke despair.
Last month, Mr. Justice David Watt of Ontario Superior Court ruled that, as Jeffrey's caregivers, the grandparents are guilty of killing him, and so they are. For her part, the grandmother is of borderline intelligence but a vicious, self-referential woman, and surprisingly capable and cunning. The grandfather is a big, lethargic dope, uninterested in much beyond his own creature comforts and unwilling to put himself out one bit to help the child who was slowly dying before his eyes.
They richly deserve their sentences, and not a whit of pity.
But, my God, Jeffrey and his little sister, centred out for cruel treatment by the grandparents though Jeffrey bore the worst of it, lived in that small house surrounded by adults.
Two of the Bottineau-Kidman grown daughters, and their men, also lived there, the most notorious of them one James Mills. Mr. Mills is the best known because he was the only one of that household to testify at trial — Judge Watt described him as "a curious mixture of blatant self-interest and unfathomable loyalty to the persons charged" — and because, as the only one in the house not related by blood or marriage, he might have been presumed to be less bound to the studied indifference that was the household's reaction to the little boy's plight.
Alas, like Mr. Kidman, whom he so admired, Mr. Mills lifted not a pinky, not once, not ever, to help the suffering Jeffrey. The night the little guy died, Mr. Mills was in the bedroom next door, playing video games.
The only price he paid for his stunningly heartless behaviour was the sting of publicity, the same price, albeit to a much lesser extent because they were not called to the witness stand, paid by the other adults who lived in the house.
So, while the grandparents are the perpetrators, while it was their legal duty and theirs alone to have properly cared for a vulnerable child, there was a larger pool of adults who donned blinkers. This is not criminal conduct, but it is morally reprehensible and depressing.
Institutionally, there were three different systems involved one way or another in the case. Two of them — the police and the administration of justice — did their jobs and emerged with honour, in reasonable good time.
Though homicide detectives probably harboured dreams of charging every person in that vile house and the agency that agreed to give the grandparents custody in the first place, and though they would have done so to wide applause, they correctly arrested only the grandparents, because only they had legal liability and opportunity and could be successfully prosecuted.
The accused were robustly defended before one of the best judges in the nation, who heard the case without a jury and wrote a 200-plus-page decision that is as sound as it is literate.
Only the Catholic Children's Aid Society came out of the abyss if not entirely unscathed — the agency, too, was called to account in the realm of public opinion — then unbowed.
At the crux of the agency's explanation for what happened was that there was, at the time Jeffrey's grandparents gained custody of him, a policy vacuum in child care.
Back then, went this explanation, when relatives stepped into the breach when parents were deemed unfit, there was no rule that workers do background checks on the relatives — as though it were perfectly acceptable that a requirement for a thorough family history, in any custody case, should flow from a formal directive.
Child-welfare agencies, chiefly the CCAS, were intimately involved with Jeffrey's various family members for 36 years; there was a wealth of frightening information about the grandparents in the files the agency failed to review.
To my knowledge, the agency has never explained — nor been asked to explain by anyone other than the press — how it was that it also approved Ms. Bottineau as one of its own paid child-care providers a mere four years after her husband was convicted of assaulting two of her youngsters from a previous marriage and despite her own conviction in the 1970 pneumonia death of her first baby, an infant named Eva who later was found to have suffered multiple fractures consistent with battered-child syndrome.
Its front-line workers involved in the case have never publicly explained their thinking.
There remains one last hope that the agency and those workers will be asked these questions and others — Ontario's chief coroner has called an inquest into the little boy's death.
The cynical view is that little good can come of these proceedings, because the recommendations of any inquest jury are only that — recommendations — and because the inquest cannot assign blame.
I don't subscribe to that view. I think the more such decisions are examined, the more publicity brought to bear on the workings of secretive organizations, the more good, ordinary people see that wasted little boy as he appeared on the autopsy table, the better.
Studies show that the sort of slow, semi-starvation Jeffrey Baldwin endured is worse, physiologically and psychologically, than total starvation. In the latter, hunger pangs disappear within a few days; in the former, there is no such blessing.
I can't bear to look at his picture any longer, but he remains in my heart. I await the inquest with eagerness.