Charges against foster parents stayed in death of tot

November 7, 2007 

Charges against former foster parents in the death of a Manitoba toddler have been stayed, just days before the case was supposed to go to court, The Canadian Press has learned.

When two-year-old Heaven Traverse died in January 2005, police treated the case as a homicide.

In April 2006, RCMP charged Douglas Sutherland with two counts of assault with a weapon and his wife, Darlene Sutherland, with aggravated assault. The foster home was at the Peguis First Nation, a Manitoba reserve near the girl's home community of Fisher River.

The couple was scheduled to appear Friday in a rural Manitoba court room for a preliminary hearing, but provincial court records indicate all charges against the couple were stayed Oct. 26. "My understanding is the Crown felt there was not sufficient evidence to proceed with the case," said Brian Kaplan, director of regional prosecutions for Manitoba Justice.

The Crown attorney on the case, Rustyn Ullrich, declined comment, but a justice department spokeswoman forwarded an e-mail on his behalf.

"On the Crown's assessment of the evidence available to date, the Crown is of the view that there is no reasonable likelihood of conviction," the statement says.

With a stay of charges, prosecutors have one year to reactivate them.

Heaven's family was shocked to hear the development.

"I'm just choked for words," said Heaven's uncle, Darryl Traverse.

"It's really saddening. I can't even think right now. We've lost a lot... It's torn our family apart."

Heaven's biological father, Lawrence Traverse, said he hasn't given up hope. He recently received a letter from the RCMP saying they would continue to investigate.

"I'm just going to work harder," he said.

Heaven, who was from the Fisher River First Nation, died Jan. 14, 2005, but her death came to light a year later when Manitobans learned about another murder case involving another foster girl.

Phoenix Sinclair, 5, who was in foster care for most of her short life, was missing for nine months before anyone reported her absence to authorities.

Police believe Phoenix was killed in June 2005, but her disappearance wasn't reported to authorities until the following winter. Her body was recovered that spring from a shallow grave in a wooded area near the Fisher River reserve, about 150 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

Phoenix's mother, Samantha Kematch, and her ex-boyfriend, Karl Wesley McKay, were charged with first degree murder and several other charges, including forcible confinement, failing to provide the necessities of life, and assault with a weapon. They are in custody awaiting trial.

Phoenix's death triggered a massive review of the province's child welfare system. Nearly 10,000 children's cases were reviewed, and the government pledged close to $42 million over three years to hire new social workers and improve child welfare services - a move it called a legacy in honour of Phoenix and other children.