Death of immigrant child sparks study on abuse

By Jasminee Sahoye


Twenty years after the charred body of a teenaged girl, identified as Melonie Biddersingh from Kingston Jamaica,  was discovered in a suitcase, a study by the City of Toronto’s Community Development and Recreation Committee has been commissioned to find out about abuse among groups of newcomer children.

Last year, Toronto Police reopened the cold case after a tip, resulting in the arrest of the teenager’s father and stepmother, who are charged with her murder.  According to observers, the case exposed the evidence of child abuse among groups of the immigrant population.

Biddersingh and her brother were sent to Canada live with their father and stepmother for a better life.  The body of the teenager was discovered in a suitcase which was doused with gas and lit on fire., but she was not identified for 20 years.

The police reopened the case after receiving a phone call and the subsequent identification of the teen charred remains in the suitcase behind a Vaughan industrial plaza on September 1994.

York West, Councillor, Anthony Perrezua, brought the undetected case of neglect and abuse of immigrant children to council.  A motion was brought by Councillor Michael Thompson, Chair, Economic Development and Cultural Committee, resulting in the study.

The motion was adopted by Councillor Joe Mihevc.  President of the Jamaican Canadian Association, Audrey Campbell also made a contribution and the committee members voted unanimously to approve the staff recommendations.

According to the study, there is no evidence that the incidence of child abuse is any different in the newcomer community than the community at large. Research revealed no statistical relationship

between the incidents of abuse and the immigration status of victims or abusers.

“There are correlations between other factors such as income, unemployment and social isolation. In addition to the broad risk factors associated with child abuse, additional risk factors, specific to newcomer population may also exist. Combined with service gaps and lack of coordination between immigration authorities, child protection and other agencies, these circumstances create barriers for preventative measures which may result in increased vulnerability of immigrant children to abuse and neglect.”

The study states that the 2012, media coverage of Biddersingh’s death drew attention to the potential for the isolation and abuse of newcomer children, and brought to light coordination gaps between Canada’s immigration, settlement and child protection systems. “These gaps can contribute to the vulnerability of immigrant children to abuse and neglect, specifically children that immigrate to Canada to be reunited with their parent(s) after a long period of separation.”

The Community Development and Recreation Committee recommends that:

“City Council direct the Executive Director, Social Development, Finance and Administration and the General Manager, Children’s Services to continue working with other orders of government, child protection agencies, school boards and other relevant agencies in order to address lack of data and coordination gaps related to services for immigrant children;

“City Council request the Government of Canada to establish a data collection system at Canada’s ports of entry to facilitate gathering of accurate statistics on unaccompanied minors as well as children that arrive to Canada to be reunited with their parents and/or step parents, and share this information as appropriate with the child welfare services;  City Council request the Province of Ontario to amend the Child and Family Services Act so that it is consistent with Canada’s international obligations from the Child’s Rights Convention so that all children under the age of 18 could qualify as in need of protection;

“City Council request that both the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario work together to establish a formal procedure to ensure all newcomer children are enrolled in the school system; and

“City Council direct the Executive Director, Social Development, Finance and Administration and the General Manager, Children’s Services to report back to the Community Development and Recreation Committee on the results of work.”

According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 49% of the population of Toronto are immigrants. One-third of them are newcomers, having arrived in Canada in the last 10 years. Many newcomers are children. Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) statistics show that in 2011 alone, over 12,000 children less than 15 years of age landed in Toronto.