Fingers point in blame game
Union, care home firm lawyers cross swords at killer nurse inquiry
ST. THOMAS — A public inquiry into how Elizabeth Wettlaufer got away for seven years with a murder and crime spree involving 14 patients devolved Tuesday into a blame game between a nurses’ union and the company that runs a Woodstock nursing home where the nurse inflicted most of her carnage.
Lawyers for the Ontario Nurses Association and Caressant Care Nursing and Retirement Homes Ltd. clashed often after each tried to solicit answers from Helen Crombez, the former nursing director at the Woodstock home, that would damn the other.
Responding to earlier testimony from Crombez, who said union grievances made it difficult to discipline nurses, the lawyer for the nurses union, Kate Hughes, pointed out that though Wettlaufer was counselled or disciplined dozens of times, the union filed only three grievances.
But the most direct clash came after the lawyer for Caressant Care, David Golden, asked Crombez if the nurses’ union disclosed what it knew about Wettlaufer’s troubled work history. She was fired in 1995 from her first job as a nurse after she stole, used and overdosed on drugs taken from a northern Ontario hospital while she was working.
The union filed a grievance that led the hospital to change what it had called a termination to a resignation, he said.
The union knew of Wettlaufer’s firing, substance abuse and claim that she was suffering from mental illness that led a regulatory college to temporarily declare her unfit to practise, but did the union ever share its knowledge with Caressant Care, Golden asked Crombez.
“(The Ontario Nurses Association) had all the details,” Golden said.
“Did the union ever say we have additional information?”
Before Crombez could respond, Hughes objected to the question, but was overruled by inquiry head, Justice Eileen Gillese.
“It appears (from the submitted evidence) that ONA was well aware,” Gillese said.
The union lawyer already had questioned Crombez over what her management team shared with the union, so Hughes had no basis for objecting that the home’s lawyer was engaging in a similar pursuit, Gillese said.
Given that leeway, Golden asked, “Over the seven-year period (that Wettlaufer worked at Caressant Care), did ONA ever tell of prior mental health issues?”
“No,” Crombez said.
Later, Hughes questioned why the home’s lawyer got to question Crombez after the union had its turn, asking the inquiry to allow the union to question her and other witnesses a second time.
Gillese rejected the request, noting it would be contrary to normal rules for public inquiries.
After Crombez finished her testimony, nurse Karen Routledge told the inquiry no nurses at the Woodstock home wanted to serve as union representative.
“I inherited it by default,” said Routledge, who took on that role from 2009-11.
Routledge said she complained to management about the work habits of Wettlaufer, who seemed more focused on being chummy than supervising staff and completing her responsibilities.
Though Wettlaufer made frequent errors, she always seemed genuinely remorseful and caring, her former colleague said.
“She fooled me,” said Routledge, who sometimes accompanied Wettlaufer to discipline meetings with managers.
“There was no indication she wasn’t being genuine.”
It seemed neither union nor company higher-ups did the legwork to flag and correct the pattern of mistakes and lack of work.
“It should have gone higher up, either on the (union) ladder or the corporate ladder,” Routledge said.
Nine weeks of testimony are expected to be done in September, with a report due next year.