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
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.
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