Relatives of murdered seniors set to ask to take part in public inquiry

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TORONTO — Relatives of murdered seniors, along with advocacy and health-care groups, are among four dozen applicants seeking to participate in a public inquiry sparked by a nurse who killed eight elderly long-term-care residents in Ontario.

Commissioner Eileen Gillese will hear their requests for standing — a status that gives them the right to call and question witnesses — in St. Thomas, Ont., on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Ontario government set up the Long-Term Care Homes Public Inquiry in August after Elizabeth Wettlaufer was convicted of eight counts of first degree-murder, four counts of attempted murder and two counts of aggravated assault. Wettlaufer had pleaded guilty in June and was sentenced to life in prison with no eligibility for parole for 25 years.

The 50-year-old injected her victims with insulin while they were in her care at three Ontario long-term care facilities and a private home between 2007 and 2016.

Alex Van Kralingen, a Toronto-based lawyer, who represents the “affected parties” group — five relatives or close friends of Wettlaufer’s victims — said his clients are obviously looking for answers as to how Wettlaufer got away with what she did for so long. But there’s much more, he said.

“Ultimately, the hope is that this is going to be a springboard into a conversation about how we treat long-term care in this province,” Van Kralingen said in an interview Monday.

“It can be an opportunity to be transformational … and could be the jump-start for political actors to start making changes to make sure that vulnerable seniors, who have given a lot to this country, are not placed in a situation where they should be scared about the quality of the care they get and the people who are taking care of them.”

Some of the families, Van Kralingen said, also wonder about tightening access to potentially lethal drugs such as insulin that can be used to hide an intent to harm.

In addition to submitted written materials, applicants will have a few minutes to explain why they believe they should be allowed to participate — either because they have a substantial and direct interest in the proceedings, or because they have information or insights that would help the inquiry.

They will also, if needed, have a chance to make a pitch to have the government fund their participation.

Despite having been fired twice during her career — the first time in 1995 — Wettlaufer managed to retain her licence as a registered nurse. Her crimes only came to light when she confessed to a mental-health professional last fall.

One professional group seeking standing is the College of Nurses of Ontario, which has come under criticism for allowing Wettlaufer to keep working. It’s another key issue that needs thorough exploration, Van Kralingen said: “Should a regulator be involved and figure out the circumstances in which somebody was fired? Where’s the regulator’s role?”

Other applicants for standing are the Ontario Nurses Association and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario — groups critical of what they see as stingy government funding and staffing requirements in long-term-care facilities. Provincial Long-Term Care Minister Eric Hoskins has already introduced legislation aimed at tightening oversight of the sector.

According to court records, Wettlaufer was an addict who found coping with elderly patients difficult and caring for 32 residents overnight at Caressant Care in Woodstock, Ont., overwhelming. She confessed to police that she would feel a “red surge” that made her think God was directing her murderous actions.

Caressant Care, where most of Wettlaufer’s killings occurred, and Meadow Park in London, Ont., where one of the deaths took place, are seeking to participate in the inquiry, as are activist groups such as the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly.

The inquiry’s mandate calls on Gillese — a justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal — to delve into the events that led to Wettlaufer’s crimes, along with the circumstances and contributing factors that allowed the crimes to occur. Those include looking at policies, procedures, practices, accountability and oversight mechanisms.

Gillese is expected to announce her decision on standing in mid-January and begin hearing from witnesses in June. She is slated to issue her report on her findings and recommendations aimed at avoiding a recurrence on July 31, 2019.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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