What Constitutes Child Neglect? the Tragic Story of the Boutique Children's Hotel, 1971

Article excerpt

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. …