Child welfare system failed 5-year-old manslaughter victim, family says | CBC News – Daily Frontline

Child welfare system failed 5-year-old manslaughter victim, family says | CBC News
– Daily Frontline

WARNING: This story contains details of child abuse.

Ada Guan — the mother of a five-year-old girl who died amid abuse and neglect in Ottawa in 2020, and whose then boyfriend was recently sentenced to 14 years for manslaughter and assault in the case — has a trial coming up on similar charges in January.

As the proceeding looms, people in the girl’s extended family say Alberta’s child welfare service failed Chloe Guan-Branch before her death, and should not have given the child back to her mother after Chloe was taken away from her and her birth father as an infant.

Guan, 32, is facing seven charges, all in connection to Chloe: manslaughter, two counts of failing to provide the necessaries of life, criminal negligence causing death, assault, assault causing bodily harm, and assault with a weapon (a slotted spoon).

CBC is reporting the details of Guan’s charges now after successfully fighting a publication ban in Ontario Superior Court.

The allegations against her have not been proven in court.

Ada Guan and her daughter Chloe in a photo posted on Guan’s Instagram page in August of 2015, when Chloe was three months old. Chloe was taken away from her parents around this time by B.C.’s child welfare service, a judge has said. (miss.mocha7/Instagram)

Parents were self-centred: grandmother

When Chloe was an infant in 2015, she was taken from her parents — Guan and Wesley Branch — by child welfare authorities in British Columbia, where they were living at the time.

Chloe’s birth that May during an Air Canada flight to Japan had made international headlines. Her parents had no idea they were pregnant, and she arrived on Mother’s Day.

During the trial of Guan’s ex-boyfriend Justin Cassie-Berube, Guan testified Chloe was taken away due to concerns about Guan and Branch, the birth father, fighting.

But Chloe’s paternal grandmother, Sandra Branch, told CBC that Guan and Wesley Branch were also immature parents who “weren’t coping well” with Chloe’s sudden arrival.

There were concerns they couldn’t properly take care of Chloe and had not established any routine, Sandra Branch said.

A B.C. case worker asked Sandra Branch to stay with the couple for a week when Chloe was less than a month old, to give them some guidance and a bit of a break.

A woman sitting next to a man feeding a newborn with a bottle.
Guan, Chloe and her birth father Wesley Branch sit for an interview after the family arrived back in Canada about a week after Chloe’s birth on an Air Canada flight. They had no idea they were pregnant. Guan testified Chloe was later taken away due to concerns about the couple fighting. (CBC)

Chloe’s file transferred to Alberta

Shortly after Sandra Branch arrived to help, her son asked if she would take Chloe for a month to give him and Guan a holiday.

“And that’s what made me realize, this is not going to work. It’s just not going to work,” said Branch, who described both parents as self-centred.

B.C. authorities decided to place Chloe in foster care when she was about three months old, the trial for Guan’s ex-boyfriend heard.

Later in 2015, B.C.’s file was transferred to Alberta’s child welfare service because Guan wanted to move back to Calgary, where she and her family are from, according to Boston Wong, Guan’s stepbrother.

A man, a woman and a young girl with a birthday cake.
Alberta authorities placed Chloe in the care of her grandfather Sam Guan and his wife Winnie Wong, after Chloe’s mother Ada Guan moved to Calgary. (Supplied by Boston Wong)

Chloe placed with her grandfather

A young girl with a sparkly purple Halloween headband.
Chloe was shy and skittish when she first entered Sam Guan and Winnie Wong’s care, but gradually relaxed and opened up, her step-uncle Boston Wong said. (Supplied by Boston Wong)

Alberta Children and Family Services took over custody of Chloe, and B.C.’s file was closed in early 2016 with no further involvement.

Alberta authorities placed Chloe with her maternal grandfather, Sam Guan, and his partner Winnie Wong, who have been married since the late 1990s and live in Calgary, Boston Wong said.

Boston Wong is one of Winnie Wong’s three adult sons. The couple declined to speak to CBC, saying Boston Wong could speak for them.

When Chloe first arrived, she was “very shy and skittish,” Boston Wong said.

“She never felt secure or safe anywhere, so it took a little bit of time to build that trust with her.”

She was gradually able to open up and connect, he said, “and started being like a regular child, started being happier, having fun.”

Kinship adoption process had begun

During this time, Alberta Children and Family Services would take Chloe for weekly visits with her parents.

Boston Wong said the case worker told him both parents were making excuses to cancel visits, “and even when they did attend, they were not fully attentive. It was more like doing your time, and not really wanting to be there.”

Concerns about their fitness as parents grew strong enough that the case worker asked Sam Guan and Winnie Wong if they would consider a kinship adoption of Chloe, Boston Wong said.

The family discussed it together. The couple wanted to, and Boston Wong and his two brothers agreed they would be backup caregivers for Chloe if anything happened to the couple.

Two pictures of a man, a woman and a young girl, side by side.
Chloe, her grandfather Sam Guan and step-grandmother Winnie Wong pose for photos. (Supplied by Boston Wong)

Chloe given back to her mother

“We were fully invested in that process,” Wong said. “They did interviews with my mom and Sam. I believe they filled out some paperwork, and I think that’s as far as it went.”

In the end, Alberta Children and Family Services decided to give Chloe back to her mother.

“Once the decision was made out of the blue to give the child back to Ada, there was a lot of questions we had, and a lot of anger,” Boston Wong said.

“We didn’t feel like she was well fit to be a mother, but they told us that they always try to give the child back to the biological parents first.”

The trial for Ada Guan’s ex-boyfriend heard that Chloe was returned to her mother when she was three and a half years old.

A portrait of a man with a serious expression on his face.
Boston Wong, 49, said his side of the family was surprised and shocked when Alberta Children and Family Services decided to give Chloe back to Ada Guan while a kinship adoption process was underway. (Boston Wong)

Ties cut, no word

Ada Guan then moved to Ottawa to be with Cassie-Berube, whom she had met online, and cut all ties with her father and his family, Boston Wong said.

In May 2020, a year and a half after being returned to Ada Guan, Chloe was found dead in her Ottawa bedroom. Her bladder had been fatally ruptured a week earlier, but no one took her for medical care, the judge said.

Cassie-Berube knew Chloe’s bruises would raise questions if they went to a hospital, and he admitted to telling Ada Guan as much in an interview with police, the judge said.

Ada Guan testified she didn’t push the issue of taking Chloe for care because she didn’t want to make Cassie-Berube angry. Court heard he was insecure and controlling, and that he was drinking heavily at the time.

Instant photos of a man and a little girl.
Instant photographs of Cassie-Berube and Chloe, taken during the holidays in 2019, were entered as exhibits during the trial. Court heard he ended up admitting to police that he didn’t want to take Chloe to hospital because her bruises would raise suspicion. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

Ottawa child welfare service wasn’t told of move

The Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa “was not notified by any jurisdiction” about Ada Guan and Chloe’s move to Ottawa, it said in an email, and therefore wasn’t involved in Chloe’s care.

It became involved after she died, as part of a routine investigation in parallel with Ottawa police that’s initiated any time a child’s caregiver “may have caused or contributed” to their death.

“We understand the profound impact this loss has had on the community. Our thoughts are with Chloe’s family and all those affected by this tragedy,” the society said.

Boston Wong and the rest of his side of the family weren’t notified of Chloe’s death. They found out through an acquaintance, and have struggled to get details because they’re not immediate family members.

A girl with dark hair wearing a black hat.
Chloe, 4, in a picture taken on May 7, 2020, two days before the bladder rupture that would cause her death on May 15, 2020. In March, a judge found she was a victim of manslaughter, assault and neglect by the man who was acting as her father. (Ontario Superior Court)

‘You lose your faith and trust in the system’

“Of course we were very angry,” he said. “It was very painful for my brothers and my mom and Sam to talk about.

“You lose your faith and trust in the system. You always think that child services does what’s best for the child. And then … you go through this and you hear what happens, and it’s hard to remain faithful in the system.”

Boston Wong wrote to Alberta’s health minister in 2021, calling on them to review the child protection case, learn from it and correct “any loopholes or failings.”

“The system failed Chloe and cost her her life,” he wrote.

Two instant photographs of a little girl.
Instant photographs of Chloe taken on May 8, 2020, the day before her fatal bladder rupture. (Kristy Nease/CBC)

In fact, it’s the Ministry of Children and Family Services, not the health ministry, that handled the case. Wong never heard back from anyone.

It’s unclear why Children and Family Services decided to give Chloe back to Ada Guan, whether its case workers continued monitoring them afterward, whether the file stayed open or was closed when they moved to Ottawa, or if case workers were aware of their move to Ottawa at all.

The ministry declined to answer any questions about its involvement with Ada Guan and Chloe, writing in an email that confidentiality provisions of Alberta law prohibit it from discussing specific cases.

A man and a woman sitting on a couch with stern looks.
Sandra and David Branch, Chloe’s paternal grandparents, say their son Wesley Branch has struggled to cope after Chloe’s death in 2020. (CBC)

‘We missed out on a lot’

Sandra Branch said Ada Guan must have “proved herself” to the Alberta case worker to get Chloe back. But in hindsight, she thinks handing Chloe back was a bad decision.

“If they could have found a loving family to bring her up, obviously none of this would have happened,” she said.

“We missed out on a lot; seeing her grow up and graduate and marry and all the rest of it. So it’s a sad situation all the way around for us.”

Wesley Branch, Chloe’s father, was “devastated” by her death and has spiralled down in the years since, his mother wrote on his behalf in a victim impact statement filed in court for Cassie-Berube’s sentencing.

A man holding a baby on a plane, standing next to a man in uniform.
A photograph of birth father Wesley Branch holding newborn Chloe next to a flight attendant aboard the Air Canada plane where her birth took place on May 10, 2015. Japanese citizens donated baby clothes and other items after the story generated significant coverage. (CBC)

‘He lives in that nightmare every day’

“He’s kicking himself for not fighting harder to stay in her life,” Sandra Branch told CBC last week, adding that he feels “betrayed by the system.”

“He can’t change it, he can’t reverse it. So he lives in that nightmare every day.”

Cassie-Berube, 30, was found guilty by a judge in March of all six charges laid against him: manslaughter, two counts of failing to provide the necessaries of life, criminal negligence causing death, assault and assault causing bodily harm.

He was sentenced to 14 years in prison in late June.

Guan’s defence lawyer, Diane Magas, said Wednesday that she and her client declined to comment due to the ongoing court case.

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