Let’s hope Betty Anne Gagnon did not die in vain

Un­sta­ble peo­ple who abused her de­serve blame, but so does the sys­tem that al­lowed it

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - PAULA SI­MONS

It’s hard to have SHER­WOOD PARK much sym­pa­thy for Denise and Michael Scriven, whose gross neg­li­gence led to the death of Betty Anne Gagnon. It was even harder this week, af­ter hear­ing the cou­ple tes­tify at a lon­gover­due fa­tal­ity in­quiry into Gagnon’s death.

Gagnon, 48, was Denise Scriven’s sis­ter. She was devel­op­men­tally dis­abled and legally blind. She died of a trau­matic brain in­jury. The Scrivens, both crack co­caine abusers, spent the last few months of Gagnon’s life tor­tur­ing her on their acreage near Ar­drossan.

Video ev­i­dence showed Michael Scriven laugh­ing and call­ing out “This is funny” as his wife re­lent­lessly beat Gagnon. He also shot videos of Gagnon try­ing to es­cape her “pen” — a makeshift cage lined with chicken wire and pointed nails. When she died on Nov. 20, 2009, Gagnon had been con­fined in an un­heated old school bus at a time when tem­per­a­tures fell to -11 C. She’d also been grotesquely mal­nour­ished.

The for­merly obese woman stood 5-foot-2, but weighed just 65 pounds.

In 2013, the Scrivens both pleaded guilty to fail­ing to pro­vide the nec­es­saries of life, and re­ceived 20-month sen­tences.

Tes­ti­fy­ing at the Sher­wood Park courthouse Wed­nes­day, the cou­ple blamed Gagnon’s death on their own men­tal ill­nesses. Both in­sisted they had tried to get respite care or another place­ment for Gagnon, but their calls for help were ig­nored. Nei­ther ex­pressed any re­morse about Gagnon’s death. Nei­ther took any re­spon­si­bil­ity for what hap­pened to her.

But while noth­ing can ex­cuse or ex­plain away the Scrivens’ sadism, Gagnon was also failed by Al­berta’s so­cial wel­fare bu­reau­cracy.

She didn’t have a so­cial worker. She didn’t have a le­gal guardian. She didn’t have a trustee.

And so, in 2005, when she left the sup­port­ive liv­ing ar­range­ment where she’d thrived in Cal­gary to move in with her sis­ter, a reg­is­tered nurse, there was no one to en­sure she was OK.

On pa­per, Denise Scriven seemed a per­fect care­giver, a reg­is­tered nurse who worked in a hos­pi­tal emer­gency room.

But her hus­band had dif­fi­culty hold­ing a job be­cause of a mem­ory im­pair­ment brought on by his long­time drug abuse. The cou­ple had bur­dened them­selves with debt when they sold their house in Ed­mon­ton to buy an iso­lated 20-acre prop­erty. And when Denise Scriven suf­fered a ma­jor break­down and sui­ci­dal de­pres­sion, no one re­al­ized Gagnon was liv­ing with two men­tally ill ad­dicts who no longer looked af­ter them­selves, let alone a vul­ner­a­ble, high-needs woman with se­ri­ous be­havioural is­sues that ranged from spread­ing fe­ces through the house to pub­lic mas­tur­ba­tion.

As court heard Wed­nes­day, Denise Scriven, in her pro­foundly de­pressed, drug-ad­dled state, didn’t do a very good job of ne­go­ti­at­ing the com­pli­cated PDD bu­reau­cracy, or even of re­turn­ing phone calls. She didn’t know the right peo­ple to call, the right ques­tions to ask. But PDD work­ers — de­spite know­ing how des­per­ate and psy­cho­log­i­cally un­bal­anced the woman was — didn’t do any fol­lowup. They didn’t drop by the home. They didn’t ask to see Gagnon. When Denise Scriven didn’t re­spond to phone mes­sages, PDD sim­ply dropped the mat­ter.

Mean­while, the cou­ple’s daugh­ter and Michael Scriven’s mother tes­ti­fied they’d called the RCMP and other gov­ern­ment agen­cies to re­port their sus­pi­cions Gagnon was be­ing abused, to no avail.

On Wed­nes­day, Heather O’Bray and Suzanne Jack­ett, the two women who had cared for Gagnon in Cal­gary, is­sued their own plea, im­plor­ing the province to as­sign so­cial work­ers to PDD clients, to cre­ate bet­ter respite care for care­givers, to es­tab­lish an ad­vo­cate for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, to en­cour­age bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween sup­port agen­cies.

“What would have been the cost to have a so­cial worker fol­low her?” asked O’Bray. “Let’s com­pare that to the cost of a trial ... and the cost of putting the Scrivens in jail for 20 months each.”

What O’Bray and Jack­ett are call­ing for makes per­fect sense. It would be won­der­ful to see the fa­tal­ity in­quiry re­port sup­port their ideas. But the shelves of the leg­is­la­ture li­brary groan with the weight of fa­tal­ity in­quiry re­ports gath­er­ing dust. Judges can rec­om­mend and rec­om­mend. Only gov­ern­ments can act.

It’s been eight years since Gagnon died. Wit­ness mem­o­ries are hazy. De­tails have been lost. The Scrivens have al­ready served their min­i­mal sen­tences. But we can still learn lessons from Gagnon’s ghastly fate — if we’re will­ing.

PERRY MAH/FILES

Denise and Michael Scriven leave court back in 2013 af­ter plead­ing guilty to fail­ing to pro­vide the nec­es­saries of life for Denise’s dis­abled sis­ter, Betty Anne Gagnon.

Betty Anne Gagnon

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