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Thursday, December 16, 1999

Shelter in a storm
Sandra Cliffe thought she was doing her job as a women's shelter worker when she reported a suspected child abuser. Her co-workers disagreed
Donna Laframboise
National Post

Jeff Vinnick, National Post
Sandra Cliffe recently quit her job at Yew Transition House: "I've been treated like a skunk at a picnic."

A year ago this week, Sandra Cliffe, an employee of a British Columbia women's shelter, followed her conscience. She contacted child protection authorities with concerns that a nine-year-old girl staying at Yew Transition House was being emotionally neglected and abused by her mother.

On medical leave since then, Cliffe recently submitted her resignation. "I've been treated like a skunk at a picnic," she says, "even though, by law, if I believe a child is being abused I'm obligated to report it."

The shelter, which receives nearly $300,000 a year from the B.C. government, distributes flyers describing itself as a "safe place for women and children." Among the list of services provided by the shelter, according to these flyers, is "support and advocacy for children."

But Cliffe, who worked 20 hours a week at Yew House for more than four years, says this is little more than lip service. Because many of her co-workers were hardline feminists, she says, a child's needs took a back seat.

This isn't the only time the quality of care children receive in women's shelters has been in the news. In 1997, five-week-old Jordan Heikamp died of starvation despite the fact that his mother, Renee, was then a resident of Anduhyaun, a Toronto shelter.

In the B.C. case, a woman, who by law cannot be named in order to protect the privacy of her child, arrived at Yew House in Sechelt, a community on the Sunshine Coast, on Oct. 9, 1998. She gave the shelter fake names for her and her daughter.

Cliffe says the pair turned up after another shelter, Nanaimo's Haven House, called to see if Yew House had any openings. She says shelter staff learned that the woman and her daughter had stayed at Haven House for an extended period, and before that had been housed by Rape Relief, a Vancouver agency.

Unlike the women-support workers who were the majority of her colleagues, Cliffe's job as a child-support worker was to observe, interact with and counsel children who have witnessed or experienced abuse. As the mother of a son the same age as the woman's daughter, Cliffe says her concerns developed early.

"We made cookies one day. We got out the cookbook, and I said, 'Here's the recipe right here,' and I ran my finger down it. She couldn't read the word 'egg.' "

Indeed, the girl had never been to school. Although her mother claimed to be home-schooling her, a child protection social worker would later tell a B.C. judge, "The child is unable to read and write." The social worker reported that the child had rarely seen a doctor, had been compelled to adopt four different aliases since leaving California and was highly anxious. "If she feels she gives out too much information, she freezes and stops talking."

Despite the fact that Yew House has a 30-day maximum-stay policy, the woman -- who claimed her daughter had been sexually abused by her former husband -- remained in residence well into December, 1998. Cliffe's written statement to child protection authorities notes that, during those two months, the woman prohibited staff from even taking her daughter for a walk.

The girl has "no independence, no voice," reads the report. Her mother "has denied her child the opportunity and means to develop at an age appropriate level ... She has demonstrated to me a defensive, hostile attitude when confronted with [the girl's] unmet needs. I have never witnessed her hug, touch or have any physical contact or display any outward affection towards her child."

Cliffe says she discussed her concerns with her supervisor and repeatedly raised them at weekly staff meetings. It was during these discussions, she says, that she learned the woman was on the run from the law after kidnapping her child in California. (An Orange County arrest warrant was issued in 1994.)

Yew House did not return calls from the National Post. When asked why the shelter would assist a fugitive, Cliffe replies: "They are staunch feminists who believe what a woman says with no questions asked. So this woman says one sentence -- she claims the father was sexually abusing this child -- and they believe it."

The RCMP's Missing Children's Registry later said there was no basis to the sex abuse allegation, adding this was the second occasion on which the woman had kidnapped her daughter in the midst of an acrimonious custody battle.

The woman has also had her problems with Canadian Immigration. Arrested in March, 1998, following the expiration of her visitor's visa, a warrant was issued for her arrest when she failed to show up for a hearing. After coming to the attention of authorities last December, she applied for refugee status, forfeited a $4,000 bond, and went AWOL once again. At the moment, she is the subject of yet another immigration warrant.

By early December of last year, Cliffe says she had seen enough at the shelter. Even if the child had been molested, she says, there was no excuse for how she was being treated.

Many of Cliffe's co-workers held a different view. When she told them she was going to alert child protection authorities, the shelter convened an emergency staff meeting on the morning of Dec. 14 in an attempt to dissuade Cliffe from making the call she placed that afternoon.

"They got me in on Monday morning and spent three and a half hours taking the skin off my bones." According to Cliffe, they shouted, banged on the table, swore at her and declared their intention to help the woman escape.

"I was asked, 'How dare you pass judgment on this woman? This woman is saying she's educating this child. Who are you to put your middle-class values on her?'

"They were saying: 'If you make this child protection report you're going to send this woman to jail and you're going to send this child back to be sexually abused. Who in the f--- do you think you are?' "

Cliffe left the meeting (which occurred off-site), returned to the shelter and made her report. "I phoned Child Protection and I was sobbing at that point," she remembers. When three of her co-workers arrived back at the shelter, she felt it was best to leave.

"I didn't feel safe. My knees were knocking. I felt physically unsafe after what they did to me.

"They were all sitting by the door. When I walked through them, my boss said to me: 'What have you done?' I did my job. I don't feel I did anything that any one of them shouldn't have done."

When the authorities arrived at the shelter shortly afterward, the woman and her daughter were indeed gone. At that point, the RCMP became involved, catching up with the pair at a bus station. Immediately taken into foster care, the girl was returned to California soon afterward.

Despite having told the shelter she had no ID and therefore needed help cashing money orders, nine fake IDs were found in the woman's possession.

Cliffe says that although the woman was sent $10,000 (US) by a relative during her Yew House stay, she wrote letters to local churches asking for financial help so she could flee to New Zealand. Cliffe says a number of churches wrote cheques for hundreds of dollars to Yew House, which then turned the money over to the woman.

"She got around 12 or 15 hundred bucks from the churches in this community."

Despite the fact that it distributes millions to the province's 85 women's shelters each year, the B.C. Ministry of Women's Equality remains untroubled by the behaviour of the Yew House staff in this instance.

Although this woman is hardly the first on the run from the law to seek refuge in a women's shelter, the province has no explicit policy on this matter. Terry Harrison, a women's ministry spokeswoman, says, "That kind of level of detail is not the kind of thing you would see in policies or protocols." Shelters are merely told to obey all the laws of the land, she says.

The ministry says it does not need to conduct its own investigation -- it has never interviewed Cliffe regarding her experiences. Even the fact that the employees of Yew House refused to talk to the RCMP leaves the women's ministry unconcerned.

"That is not something that's our responsibility," says Harrison. "That's between the police and Yew House."

Corporal Danny Willis of the Sechelt RCMP detachment says that while a decision was made during the past month not to pursue charges, he says this doesn't mean Yew House's behaviour is acceptable.

"Charges aren't always the best way to deal with some [matters]," he says. The fact that a group of people were involved (thus making it more difficult to determine individual responsibility), in addition to the dollars required to fly U.S. authorities up for a court case, influenced the decision. "It was probably more to the cost factor than anything else that it was not carried through," he says.

A criminal prosecution shouldn't be necessary, says Willis, for the women's ministry "to recognize that there was a problem with what happened and it needs to be corrected."

As a taxpayer, never mind a police officer, he says, he expects the women's ministry to be "stepping in and saying, 'Whoa, there's a problem here. We're going to have to review [Yew House's] contract and decide whether we're going to renew it.' "

Cliffe says that, after placing the fateful call, it became impossible for her to return to Yew House. "I loved my job, and I was good at my job. But the bottom line is I can't work for such an organization. These women are educated in abuse issues. How come no other transition house did anything to help this child?"

Cliffe says she doesn't want to be viewed as a victim. But a year later, her family is struggling financially while everything's apparently business as usual at Yew House.

"I teach my children to stand up and tell the truth," says Cliffe. "But they're going without because I haven't had an income.

"What message is this sending? You stand up and be honest and you'll be punished?"

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