Parents of boy who died in care say apprehensions need more oversight

Boy died in foster care

The parents of a six-year-old boy who died in foster care this week just days after being removed from his home are demanding better support for families and more oversight around child apprehensions.

John, 40, and Jade Ratchford, 38, say three police officers and four social workers turned up at their Victoria home at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 22 in a scene they describe as confusing and chaotic.

John Ratchford was ­momentarily handcuffed, while six-year-old Oliver and eight-year-old Lucy, who were being home-schooled at the time, were removed.

Victoria police confirmed they were called to assist the ministry that morning.

“The last image my son saw was his dad on his knees in ­handcuffs — I never got to hug him goodbye and now I will never get to hug him again,” said John Ratchford.

“He never got to find out if his father was safe.”

Four days later, Oliver was found face-down and ­unresponsive in a backyard garden pond.

The boy was on life-support at Victoria General Hospital for two days before he died Wednesday.

It was at the hospital that the Ratchfords say their daughter Lucy told them what happened: “She watched the whole thing.”

The couple said their children were playing unsupervised in the backyard of the foster home, which had an unfenced pool and garden-feature pond. The kids were each pretending that they were Pokeman.

Jade Ratchford said she and her husband of 15 years, who are unemployed and have physical disabilities, hadn’t yet taught their kids to swim.

The family of four had been on beaches but mostly stuck to parks and ­forests, so the children were unfamiliar with ponds and pools.

“So she had no idea, she had no concept,” said Ratchford of her daughter. “She said [Oliver] fell in and she saw him splashing and didn’t understand what was happening to him and thought he was playing.

“And so she went and carried on. She thought: ‘Oh, he’s just playing in the pond for a bit.’ ”

First responders tried to resuscitate the boy, who was taken to Victoria General Hospital, said Jade Ratchford.

“She still thinks [his death] is because algae is toxic,” said Ratchford. “She thinks he swallowed it and it’s in his belly.”

The couple wants the province to give families greater support prior to removing children from their homes. If the ministry thinks apprehension is still necessary, it should first be approved by a judge to ensure independent oversight and that parents are informed, they say.

“When my children were removed, they were not offered a chance to gather clothing or comfort items — they took them away in just their shoes and pajamas,” said John Ratchford. “My son was just in a tank top and shorts.”

Jade Ratchford said she sensed the case against her family snowballing in the fall and was at a loss as to how to stop it. She described her kids as normal and happy with some quirks but no special needs.

Ratchford said she allowed her daughter to receive counselling at school when it was offered, but felt the questioning of her daughter was invasive and suggestive. Ministry social workers came and went, she said.

In January, however, the Ratchfords were advised that the school had made another report to the ministry and they were asked to attend an in-person meeting. Ratchford declined in favour of an email exchange.

The Ratchfords, who say they are ordained as independent Catholic priests, said they removed the kids from their elementary school to homeschool them.

The couple said they knew the school and ministry had concerns, but they maintain they were fulfilling their responsibilities as parents, supported by their friends and family.

The couple live on disability payments — the average monthly payments for a family of four is about $2,500 a month.

“There should be real supports for parents who need help before these things happen, right?” said Jade Ratchford. “Instead of giving out these pathetic food cards, maybe they could actually help poor families with the things they actually need.”

That help could include nursing assistance, visits to chiropractors, home support to help with cleaning, and counselling “to help and support and build these families up rather than tearing them apart,” she said.

John Ratchford said the removal of the children was carried out under section 30 of the Child, Family and Community Service Act.

That section says a child can be removed without a court order if there are reasonable grounds to believe the child’s health or safety is in immediate danger.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development said Friday it recently created a new associate provincial director of child welfare role to strengthen child-safety oversight and accountability.

The Ratchfords are calling for the immediate creation of an independent public oversight body for the ministry with a mandatory review of each removal, adding the ministry should not be policing itself.

B.C. representative for children and youth Jennifer Charlesworth, who is due to release a systemic review of the death of a Fraser Valley boy who died in care in February 2021, says Oliver’s case is a tragedy that should have never happened.

The independent office will conduct an initial review of the death — in addition to the coroners service and ministry reviews — to determine if any further steps or investigation is needed.

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