Gaping holes in our country’s systems for the protection of newly immigrated children have literally cost 17 year old Melonie Biddersingh her life.
That is in itself a shameful stain on our society.
Unfortunately, we have now earned ourselves further shame.
We have to admit that, five years after Melonie’s death came to light, we have only completed the preliminary stages of the work required to prevent the recurrence of similar tragedies.
It is not enough that a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 16 years was recently imposed on her stepmother for second-degree murder.
Nor was it enough that, eight months ago, her father was himself condemned to life in prison without a chance of parole for 25 years. His role in the heinous crime resulted in his conviction for first-degree murder.
When Melonie’s mother agreed to allow her to leave Jamaica to live with her father and his family in Canada in1990, the intention was to give her a chance at a better opportunity in life.
Instead, having entered Canada legally as a landed immigrant, she was kept out of school, totally isolated from contact with the world outside of the home and brutalized. In 1994 she was murdered and her corpse was packed into a suitcase and burnt beyond recognition.
No one but her father and her step- mother knew of her grizzly fate for all of 17 years, until the day that her step-mother eventually told a pastor of the girl’s years of terrible suffering and gruesome death.
Now that these two sentences have been handed down, there is a sense that justice is being substantively served.
But the question we need to ask ourselves remains the same. What have we achieved on the preventative side, in terms of our policies and practical systems?
Since 2012, Councillor Michael Thompson set the corrective process in motion by getting Toronto’s City Council to adopt a decision to investigate and make recommendations on the remedial measures required to address the abuse of immigrant children.
The initiative has produced a Welfare of Immigrant Children Work Group. Wide-ranging consultation and research have been undertaken with the participation of the three levels of Government, the specialized agencies and the community groups engaged in the fields of education, health, safety and immigration.
The progress report that was presented to Council last year indicated that the Work Group was set to embark on the final stage of its mission, namely collating all the measures and policies into a set of collaborative structures.
The resulting document, tentatively entitled “Building Pathways”, is to be drafted and submitted to senior decision-makers at a conference scheduled for this year.
Are we satisfied with the pace of that preventative process? No, we are not. And we suspect that Councillor Thompson is not satisfied either.
We echo the recent statements of Detective Sergeant Steve Ryan, the conscientious homicide specialist who re-opened the case in 2012. Expressing his concern that, two decades after the Biddersingh tragedies, immigrant children could still suffer the same fate, he reminds us:
“We have to stop this from happening again. Shame on all of us if it does.”
Among the measures to be considered, four stand out: registration of immigrant children at the port of entry; connecting newcomer children with community groups; training for personnel in education, immigration, community agencies and child welfare agencies, so that they can more effectively recognize abuse and initiate an intervention as required.
Moreover, we consider it necessary and appropriate to add two of our own recommendation to those four.
The first is that attention needs to be paid to the legal validation of the new and the joint operations that are to be undertaken. It is perfectly normal that some challenges will arise concerning which authority or agency should have responsibility for which area of activity, especially when new responsibilities are being established. Legally applicable provisions to cater for those challenges are therefore in order.
Our second recommendation is steps should be taken to expedite this whole process of strengthening the protection of the interests of newly immigrated children.
We need to set up a full-time task force to complete the job as soon as possible. Let us make maximum use of some of the most experienced and knowledgeable members of the Work Group as well as some additional personnel.
Since children are our nation’s future, we need to give their welfare the highest priority, in order to save them from the physical and mental tragedies suffered by Melonie Biddersingh.
This must never happen again!