A Durham police detective assigned to determine whether or not criminal charges should be laid in connection with allegations of deaths from neglect at a Pickering long-term care home is pointing a finger at government failings.
A group of people who lost loved ones at Orchard Villa — one of the hardest-hit homes in the first wave of the pandemic — approached the Durham Regional Police Service last year, seeking a criminal investigation and alleging that neglect by the home led to residents' deaths, not only from COVID-19 but also from dehydration and malnutrition.
Det. Robert Hawkes has been assigned to the file. In an email to the group of families Thursday morning, he said that so far, police have evaluated the various reports on what happened in long-term care during the pandemic and are currently awaiting additional information from various agencies, including "notes/interviews related to the reports for clarification on a number of statements in each of the reports."
But so far, he wrote, he cannot say if there will be a criminal investigation.
"There is certainly enough in the reports to meet a civil standard but not for a criminal burden of proof," he wrote.
While the families have asked police to investigate the management and ownership of the home, Hawkes said the reports cast some blame on the current and former provincial governments.
"All are fairly consistent in a failure of both present and previous governments in dealing with LTC homes," he wrote. "As well as their response to the pandemic."
That is not enough for the families of Orchard Villa, according to Cathy Parkes, who has represented the group to the media and police. While she can understand that Hawkes would come to that conclusion if he was only focusing on reports, such as those from the independent commission into long-term care, she said there is much more information available to him.
"As a group, we've sent him every piece of documentation we have," she said, adding this includes hospital records of residents indicating that they hadn't been adequately fed or hydrated in weeks, and were dying. "I don't know how that's not burden of proof."
Parkes said she wants police to investigate the homes' records of its staffing levels, as well as the timing of its responses to the pandemic — the families allege the home was understaffed prior to the pandemic and far too late in asking for help after the COVID-19 outbreak began.
In May, Hawkes told Parkes that police in Durham, York and Toronto have been reviewing reports from the military, the ministry, and the long-term care commission and consulting with each other, and the OPP, as well as with the Office of the Chief Coroner, to determine what the next steps will be.
While those reports have since been reviewed, the next steps still aren't clear.
The Ontario NDP wrote to the Ontario Provincial Police two months ago asking for it to determine whether or not a criminal investigation should be launched. According to a spokesperson, that decision has not yet been made.
"The OPP must review all of the available information from a wide variety of sources," said spokesperson Bill Dickson. "This process does take time."
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Thursday she believes police are taking the matter seriously but she urged them to rely not only on official reports but to interview the staff at the homes and the family members of those who died.
"I think that the proof is in the people who lost their lives, frankly, and the proof is in the evidence and oral descriptions that we have from loved ones and family members," she said. "It's not just a matter of what's documented in existing reports and accounts that have been made public."
The NDP leader said she agreed with the detective's assessment, however, that the government shares in the blame, saying the Ford government refused to spend enough money to support homes during the pandemic and has stymied families' search for justice since by putting limits on the independent commission into long-term care and failing to call a full public inquiry.
Horwath was holding a press conference in Pickering to call on the government to refuse to renew licences for homes that had "horrible COVID-19 records." Families have been protesting the home's requests for a 87-bed expansion, which has been granted, and a 30-year license extension.
Fred Cramer was one of two people who lost loved ones at Orchard Villa who spoke alongside Horwath. Both called for criminal investigations into what happened.
"Whether it's the CEOs or the management of the homes, but in the end somebody has to be responsible for what happened," he said, "because it just was not right."
In a statement, a representative of Southbridge Care Homes, which owns Orchard Villa, addressed Parkes' allegations.
"While staffing was a challenge at Orchard Villa during the pandemic, this was an experience shared by many homes within the long-term care sector. As soon as the home went into outbreak in early April 2020, we reached out immediately and frequently to our community health partners. Orchard Villa was also supported by a doctor at all times during the outbreak," said Candace Chartier, chief seniors’ advocate and strategic partnerships officer at Southbridge.
"Regarding the hydration and nutrition of residents, we have checked our records and residents were regularly offered food or water. All residents’ hydration and nutrition are tracked and documented daily. In instances where a resident may have a complex health issue, such as dementia, he or she at times may refuse to eat or drink. As it would be inappropriate to attempt to force a resident to receive care, staff members will re-engage with the resident at a later time. By documenting these interactions daily, we are able to identify patterns where care may be consistently refused and make adjustments as necessary."
QP Briefing reached out to Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips' office for comment.
Update: After the initial publication of this story, Phillips' press secretary released a statement to QP Briefing. "What happened at Orchard Villa is tragic. If the OPP or Durham Regional Police initiate an investigation, we will fully cooperate," said Vanessa De Matteis, senior communications adviser and press secretary to Phillips.
QP Briefing had asked if the ministry had forwarded inspection reports to the relevant police services. De Matteis replied that the reports are publicly available.