Ottawa is exploring criminal reform as the LTC Neglect Bill

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OTTAWA – Cathy Legere saw first-hand the conditions endured by elderly long-term care residents and the intense pressure personal care workers were under in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The retired infection control nurse offered her services at the Orchard Villa home where her father-in-law Nick lived in April 2020 – and said she witnessed a deeply “broken” system before contracting the virus herself.

Self-isolating at home, she was horrified to discover that her father-in-law, Nick, had been left in the room for nearly 24 hours with the dead body of the resident, whom he had watched slowly succumb to the disease over the course of two days. .

The harrowing stories that emerged from the long-term care environment during the early part of the pandemic, particularly as reported by members of the Canadian military who were brought in to help, prompted the Liberal government to promise in its 2020 throne speech to work on criminal code amendments . “expressly punish those who neglect the elderly in their care”.

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Almost two years later, the government has not taken any major steps.

That makes Legere, who is a party to a large class-action lawsuit against Ontario nursing homes, all the more cynical about seeing any accountability: “Is it something that’s going to do something, or is it just the Liberals saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re going to do it, “and everyone will lie down again?”

Liberal Hedy Fry, the longest-serving member of the House of Commons, is trying to take matters into her own hands and propose changes that could form the government’s roadmap.

In late June, she introduced a private bill, Bill C-295, that would amend Section 215 of the Criminal Code to specifically criminalize owners and managers of long-term care facilities for failing to provide the “necessities of life” to vulnerable adults.

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It would also give judges the ability to bar anyone convicted of or on probation for the crime from volunteering or working in an environment “that involves leadership or a position of trust or authority over an adult who is vulnerable because of age, illness, mental disorder, disability or frailty.”

Fry said her intention is to prevent long-term care failures during the pandemic from ever happening again.

“Covid has exposed many vulnerabilities that we, complacent as governments and as carers and as doctors, have always thought were taken care of. It revealed that there were holes in the safety net,” she said in an interview. “The system failed this task.”

Fry said Justice Minister David Lametti had “no problem with the proposal” and answered in the affirmative when asked if he believed the government agreed with the approach.

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A Justice Department spokesman would only say that officials are “exploring potential options for reforming the criminal code to better ress elder abuse and neglect.”

Experts say the bill is a step in the right direction, but risks becoming a public relations exercise without meaningful change if the government ends up backing it in isolation.

Amendments to the criminal code alone seem like “a very viable approach,” said Graham Webb, executive director of the Center for Advocacy for Seniors and formerly his longtime attorney.

“I’m really not aware of a single charge that has ever been filed for neglect of a long-term resident,” Webb said. “I think it’s important that the criminal justice system is able to respond when we see such flagrant cases of institutional abuse and neglect of older adults.”

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He ed that the definitions relating to “managers” and “owners” of homes could be tweaked to ensure that individuals at the top who control the money and resources available to staff, rather than individuals, are held accountable for neglect. line workers.

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But Krista James, national director of the Canadian Center for Elder Law, said prosecutions under Section 215 are few and far between and she is very skeptical about the impact of changing it.

“Criminal law reform requires criminal law reform to be effective,” she said, explaining that police and prosecutors would need to be trained and the crimes and standards of proof widely supported for it to work. “If only it were a matter of changing the law.”

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When asked if she thought the bill could be a deterrent, James joked, “You hope that long-term care providers will want to provide good care to vulnerable older adults living in their facilities, whether they go to prison or not. if not.’

Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, said there have been “no consequences” for the abuse and neglect uncovered during the pandemic, or the unnecessary deaths of residents due to poor infection control and reasons unrelated to COVID-19. such as dehydration and starvation.

While there is much for provincial governments that oversee long-term care to do, Ottawa has a role to play in holding provinces accountable for better standards of care, Mehra said, by attaching more chains to federal health transfers.

That and finally keeping the promise to prosecute bad actors.

“I think we have to question whether the lives of old people are worth a formal government bill,” she said, “and real change with teeth.”

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