About 6:30 a.m. on Monday 22 November 1971, Margaret Leeferink pulled her station wagon up in front of the residence of Miss P. in Calgary. She knocked on the door and collected the first of 13 young children she would pick up that morning, Angela P., a toddler who had recently celebrated her second birthday. Over the next two hours, Mrs. Leeferink would call at other homes throughout Calgary, from Varsity Acres in the northwest to Fairview in the southeast. She then drove the station wagon to her acreage just beyond the western limits of the city in south Calgary where she had fashioned a makeshift day care in a large, detached triple garage. The children she unloaded from the car at around 9:00 a.m. consisted of seven infants less than one year of age, four children between one and two years, and two children over two years. (1)
Margaret Leeferink did not employ anyone on a regular basis at her day care. That morning a 16-year-old girl and another youth were at the home and available to lend a hand when needed. But Margaret Leeferink was the only dedicated caregiver. Her plan was to care for the children until shortly before four o'clock and then bundle them into her station wagon for the return trip to Calgary. She would be finished dropping the children at their homes before 7 p.m. (2)
But Mrs. Leeferink never got the opportunity to make that return trip. Shortly after noon, three provincial child welfare workers entered the property accompanied by two RCMP officers. That afternoon, the children were taken into protective custody by the workers and transported to the Children's Shelter of the City of Calgary. With one exception, the children were released into parental care later that day. The remaining child was claimed at the shelter the next day. (3)
What had caused the child welfare workers to take such precipitous action? In a memo to Premier Peter Lougheed on 25 November, the senior bureaucrat in the Department of Health and Social Development, Deputy Minister Duncan Rogers, summarized what the child welfare workers had found on 22 November:
The ensuing investigation revealed 10 infants in the garage and another three in the home, each in a separate bedroom unattended. Mrs. Leeferink could produce no proper registry and could not even name one of the children. The garage, which contained 1 crib, 2 playpens, cat, 1 bunk bed, 1 card table, 7 chairs and multiple toys, was hot, smelly and cluttered. The children were dirty, wore soiled clothing and had runny noses. Many were minus shoes and socks and some were chewing licorice, including a 6 month old baby. All but two of the youngsters were walking or crawling on the floor which was covered by a dirty rug. No running water was available in the garage, open garbage pails were used for dirty diapers, five of the babies needed changing and fecal matter had dried all over the infants' buttocks and required wet paper washings to remove. (4)
On the first day of a neglect inquiry presided over by Judge J.J. O'Connor of the Juvenile Court, two of the child welfare workers and an RCMP officer presented the following additional observations of the state of Margaret Leeferink's day care on 22 November (5): The smell in the garage "was extremely foul" (p. 9). The garage was windowless (p. 11) and could only be ventilated by leaving the door open. "Your feet stuck to the floor in the kitchen area" (p. 37). "Mrs. Leeferink changed one baby while we were there. The baby had dirty diapers. She had to leave the garage twice to go get some wet material to wipe the bottom off.... When she was finished she just rubbed her hands together and went on to the next" (pp. 37-38).
One can reasonably conclude, given the transportation arrangements, spotty supervision, and inadequate hygiene, that the children enrolled in Margaret Leeferink's day care were at greater risk than most Calgary children of being injured in an accident or picking up a communicable disease.
Child welfare workers decided on 22 November 1971 that the children in Margaret Leeferink's care were being neglected, and they, on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Development, defended that decision during the subsequent neglect inquiry. However the vast majority of parents rejected this judgement since they continued to purchase Leeferink's daycare services in the days after 22 November. Justice O'Connor found "on a review of the entire evidence and as a matter of fact that the children were not neglected." (6)
The existence of such divergent judgements makes this an interesting historical incident. What is particularly important is that the views of parents have been preserved in the transcript of the neglect inquiry, alongside the views of those who participated in the apprehension. The perspectives of working people are often absent from the historical record. But in this article it is possible to outline and analyze how a handful of working parents in Calgary understood and acted upon child care issues in 1971.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, child care emerged as a major public issue in Alberta. The 1971 census revealed that 42.6% of married women were in the paid labour force. This compared with participation rates of 25.9% in 1961 and only 9.9% in 1951. …