protect his identity. (Laurie Fagan/CBC)
Five years after a gaunt, fearful, nine-year-old boy showed up on her doorstep, an Ottawa woman says she still struggles with feelings of guilt that she could have done more to protect him from his abusive parents, and anger with police for sending him back to them to endure months of gruesome torture and neglect.
The woman, a former neighbour who can't be identified to protect the boy's identity, testified at the trial of his father — a suspended RCMP officer — and his stepmother.
"It makes me sickened to my stomach that this could have been prevented, and I include myself in this," the woman told CBC News.
On Nov. 21, the 45-year-old Mountie was found guilty of aggravated assault, sexual assault causing bodily harm, forcible confinement and failing to provide the necessities of life. The boy's 38-year-old stepmother was found guilty of assault with a weapon and failing to provide the necessities of life.
"I will be haunted by this, and I am culpable as well. I didn't follow up and I trusted the police, I trusted the system, but he still had to endure all those horrors."
Signs of abuse, neglect
Gut-wrenching evidence presented at the couple's trial showed the boy, who's now 14, was beaten, sexually assaulted with a BBQ lighter, shackled and starved.
'His eyes — you could see the fear and sadness in his eyes, and as a mother it was terrifying to see that. You never want to see that in a child's face.'
The woman, a mother of three, brought the boy inside and gave him two pieces of cake and a glass of milk. As he ate he explained that his father made him do hundreds of pushups as punishment for lying or not finishing his homework, and if he didn't complete them he didn't eat.
The boy lifted his shirt so the woman could see his stomach.
"I could see his ribcage. I could see his sunken stomach, and all the red on his stomach and forearms looked like carpet burns," said the woman. "There was also red ligature marks on his wrists."
She questioned the boy about the marks, but he wouldn't tell her how he got them.
"His eyes — you could see the fear and sadness in his eyes, and as a mother it was terrifying to see that. You never want to see that in a child's face," said the woman, tears welling in her eyes.
Police returned boy to abusive home
She and her husband decided to call 911, and when police arrived they told them the boy's parents had also called to report him missing.
The woman said the boy sat in her lap and held her hand tightly as he told the two police officers about the mistreatment he suffered at home. She recalled how tiny and frail he felt.
She said she was shocked when the female officer barked at the boy, "Do you know if you are lying your father could go to jail?"
"You want maternal, you want kind, and the child hadn't eaten in two days, and you're defending the father?" the woman recalled thinking. "I said to her, 'He's not on trial here! He's the victim!'"
In her testimony during the couple's trial, the woman recalled the boy telling the officer, "I don't want my dad to go to jail."
The officers thanked the woman and said they were taking the boy home, about a block away.
She said she'll never forget the image of the boy walking with the police officers to their cruiser, pleading, "I don't want to go! I don't want to go!"
"I was heartbroken. I told the boy, 'Trust the police. They will take care of you.'"
Within an hour the male police officer returned and told her everything was fine, and said there was lots of food on the boy's family's kitchen table. The officer told her the boy and his father had a "little argument," but said the boy was in a "healthy, happy home."
Visit from stepmother
The next day the boy's stepmother showed up at the woman's house and told her the boy was bipolar and hadn't been taking his medication. The woman described the stepmother's behaviour as "odd" and lacking empathy for the boy.
of crimes on Nov. 21, 2016. (Courtroom sketches by Sarah Wallace)
A few days later, still feeling uneasy, the woman went to see the principal at her daughter's school to share her suspicions about the boy's mistreatment, but a short time later the boy switched schools.
In February 2013, 15 months after the boy's visit to the woman's home, she was in her car when she heard a radio newscast that described police finding a nude boy wandering down an Ottawa street.
"They said the street name and all of a sudden my heart sank and I said, no, it cannot be, and to my horror it was. I was shaking and crying. I said to myself, 'You should have made some calls.' What do you do? What do you do?"
The woman immediately called police and told them what had happened more than a year earlier when the boy came to her door.
'He was telling the truth'
"There were signs that no one followed up on. If there was followup, the horrors that he had to endure, he wouldn't have had to endure."
"He wasn't lying. He was telling the truth and he was asking for help, and the help wasn't there."
The woman said she was pleased with the verdicts in the boy's parents' trial, but she believes police haven't been held accountable for their role. She said she'd like to speak with the two officers who returned the boy to his home.
"I would love to have that conversation with them and say, 'I know what I should have done. Do you accept the responsibility of what you should have done?'"
Ottawa police did not provide anyone for an interview, but in an emailed statement Monday, Supt. Don Sweet told CBC News the 2013 investigation that led to the charges against the boy's parents "considered all information — including the 2011 event when police responded to a call for service related to a missing persons file. It is the opinion of the OPS that the information, as presented in 2011, was investigated appropriately."
Police should be required to inform social services who should be required to investigate any accusation of child abuse. This was a big-time failure by Ottawa police; the boy's pain and suffering over the last year or so is their fault.