Three Port Alberni women who cared for a six-year-old Indigenous boy later killed by his mother and stepfather say they are upset and disillusioned that the needs of children appear secondary to the push to return them to their Indigenous communities.
Dontay Patrick Lucas died on March 13, 2018, of blunt force trauma to the brain after being transitioned back into the care of his mother by USMA Nuu-chah-nulth family and child services.
His mother, Rykel Charleson, and stepfather Mitchell Frank deprived the little boy of water, food and sleep, hit him, bit him and forced him to hang by his knees from the top of a door until he fell. The couple, who were originally charged with first degree murder, pleaded guilty to manslaughter last week. They are to be sentenced in Port Alberni on May 16 and 17.
Dontay’s former foster mother, Karen Ruttan, said the Ministry of Child and Family Development and Indigenous child services have to be held accountable for their actions.
“You can’t be quiet when children are being abused, sexually molested and killed and they’re turning a blind eye,” said Ruttan. “Why should this keep going on? They’ve got to do something for these children. I love these children. And the majority of foster mums I know, we just love them to pieces. But they send them back and they are abused. And they send them back and they are killed.”
Dontay was placed in Ruttan’s home when he was a few months old and lived with her until he was three. She was already fostering his cousins.
“He was ADHD and it was hard for me to control him. But I loved his smile and he was thriving here. When a child-care worker came over, he was crawling around me saying ‘Happy Mummy, happy,’ ” Ruttan recalled.
She made albums of photos of the boy that she gave to Dontay’s mother, father, grandmother and uncle.
Another foster parent, who withheld her name in case of repercussions from the ministry, was there the day Dontay arrived at Ruttan’s home.
“He was in pretty sad shape. He couldn’t roll over. He couldn’t lift his head. The back of his head was as flat as a pancake. It appeared he had spent his life up to that point lying on his back in a crib,” she said. “But he thrived in Karen’s home.”
Ruttan remembers bringing Dontay to visit his mother when he was barely walking.
“I would have to drag him to the house. He didn’t want to go even then. He was afraid,” said Ruttan.
One day, she went to school to pick him up and found out child services had taken him right from school. They brought Dontay to her house later that day and told him to pack his clothes.
“I sat him on the stool and I said: ‘Honey, they’re taking you but know that I’ll always love you and when you’re bigger you’re always welcome back here.’ And that was that,’ ” said Ruttan, who visited the boy’s grave on Friday.
“I had him longer in his life than anybody had him. I love him so much. I still do, of course. I just can’t believe that I couldn’t make a difference.”
Another woman, no longer working in child services, said Dontay’s death haunts the community and was extremely traumatizing.
Like Ruttan, she believes there must be far more accountability in the decisions made by child services.
“I never thought he should go back. I thought USMA handled it extremely poorly. I hold them responsible for his passing. I do. That little guy should never have been jostled around the way he was. It breaks my heart to this day,” she said.
“They were hoping to get him off their books, back in with his parents. And the abruptness of what they did with him was just so awful for Dontay. He was doing fabulously with Karen.”
Dontay was placed in an Aboriginal foster home after Ruttan and they were “really quite lovely” with him, the former child care worker said.
“But USMA just wanted him back with his mother and they weren’t ready. The mother told me she wasn’t ready.”
There were a lot of people in the community who didn’t want to see him returned to his parents and they told USMA it wasn’t a good idea, the former child care worker said.
“But it was all around policies and procedures. We’ve gone a long way from what is in the best interest of the child versus should a child always be returned to the Aboriginal community regardless. It needs to be in the best interest of the child.”
Almost six years later, the former child care worker wonders if there is anything else she could have done differently.
“But I absolutely did everything I thought in my power at the time in bringing my concerns, writing a report, the things that would be best for him — that any transitions needed to be slow, very slow. That there needed to be a ton of support put in for the parents.”
The treatment of Dontay at the hands of his mother and stepfather was absolutely horrific, the former child care worker said.
“I can’t imagine any child going through that. A little child, a little innocent child. And where are the assessments of where parents’ heads are at and how desperate they are?” she said, her voice breaking.
An audit of USMA child and family services by the Ministry of Children and Family Development was completed in January 2019, nine months after Dontay’s death.
The audit found that the agency faced high staff turnover and long-term staff vacancies, resulting in higher caseloads and stress levels.
The audit, which is based on 77 child-service records, revealed that USMA had only 17 per cent compliance with its requirement to investigate alleged abuse or neglect in a family-care home.
The audit also found USMA had only 14 per cent compliance with developing a comprehensive plan of care for its wards.
More troubling, the audit found USMA had only one per cent compliance with the requirement that a social worker visit the child.
“Documentation of the social workers’ private contacts with children/youth in care met the standard in 1 of the 77 records. Of the 76 records rated not achieved, 12 did not have confirmations that the children and youth had visits of any kind with their social workers,” said the audit.
The report concludes that overall compliance with child service standards was 56 per cent.