Can a mother forget the baby at her breast

and have no compassion
on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!

Isaiah 49:15

Though my mother and father forsake me,
The Lord will receive me.

Ps. 27:10

Yes, it is unnatural, but it happens. Mothers do sometimes profoundly neglect and cruelly abandon their own children. The bonding between mother and child isn’t guaranteed. The maternal instincts can be overridden by rampant self-absorption. One becomes a good parent not by instinct alone but also by modelling.

Jordan Heikamp never lived long enough to smile. He never took a baby step. He never had a birthday. He never reached five pounds.

When he was born prematurely on May 18, 1999, he weighed only four pounds six ounces. He had more names than pounds on his little body: Jordan Austin Michael Robert Scott Desmond Heikamp. He lived only 35 days, and died of chronic starvation. He weighed four ounces less at his death than he did at birth.

Because we as a society want to believe the best, we can in fact precipitate the worst. Renee Heikamp, Jordan’s mother, was never held accountable for her parenting. We can be too trusting. Would Jordan have survived in a society of nosey busybodies?

A high-school dropout, Renee Heikamp had lived for four years in Toronto shelters. When she became pregnant, a conscientious social worker arranged for the 19-year-old to live at Massey Centre, the best maternity home in Toronto. Instead Heikamp placed herself in another shelter, Horizons for Youth. She did not seek any prenatal care for her child. Many teen mums who have been living dysfunctional lives manage to get it together during their pregnancy, but Heikamp only looked out for herself.

Heikamp is not unique. Many street kids have not been effectively parented. themselves and have no healthy attachments. They have not been nurtured so it is harder for them to nurture others. Heikamp needed a place that would mother her and so teach her how to mother.

Heikamp gave birth by Caesarian section at Humber River Regional Hospital. The watchful nurses noticed that she rarely visited Jordan in the nursery, so after consulting a doctor, they identified Heikamp as a high-risk mother to the Catholic Children’s Aid Society (CCAS).

It was now the duty of the CCAS to protect Jordan, who had been declared “a child in need of protection.” Jordan gained weight during his 11 days in hospital. When he was discharged, the CCAS assigned social worker Angie Martin as his child protection worker.

Martin only saw Jordan, the child she was assigned to protect, twice – once when he left hospital and once, two weeks before his death.

Although Heikamp is non-native, she and Jordan were placed, with Martin’s approval, in Anduhyaun, a shelter for abused native women. Instead of visiting the shelter and seeing for herself how Heikamp was caring for her child, the child protection worker instead held the interview in her office. Worse still, Martin had tried to persuade Heikamp to arrange for a babysitter and come alone. When Jordan did appear, Martin wrote in her notes that he didn’t seem to be gaining much weight, but she took no action.

Although Martin later claimed to be overworked, most of her 38 files were closed or inactive. Jordan was mentioned by name only five times in the 59 pages of documents Martin kept on his case.

The social worker seemed to assume that the shelter was monitoring Jordan’s care, while the shelter assumed the social worker was. Legally Jordan was the responsibility of Martin and the CCAS.

(Martin has never been disciplined by the CCAS, nor has the CCAS completed an internal investigation. Instead, when Martin was charged for her role in JordanÕs death – charges which were eventually dropped – the CCAS hired a public relations firm.)

Ironically, if Heikamp had been living alone with her baby in an isolated apartment she might well have been visited more often. Because she was in a shelter, it was assumed she and Jordan were being supervised.

Of the seven employees at Anduhyaun, only one was a registered nurse, but even she was employed only as a “counsellor.” All seven staff members reported that they rarely saw or heard Jordan during the 25 days he lived with them. His mother usually kept him bundled up in a blanket. Only one staff member ever saw him in just a diaper. They all trusted Heikamp when she told them that her infant was feeding well, gaining weight and receiving regular check-ups.

Jordan was an emaciated bundle of bones when he died on June 23 of chronic starvation. An inquest would discover that his mother had fed Jordan baby formula that she’d over-diluted with tap water and that she’d lied about taking him to see a doctor for check ups. In fact no health care professional ever saw the baby after his hospital discharge.

Expert witnesses said Jordan had not been fed for at least 24 to 48 hours before his death. Dr. John Watts, a paediatrician, testified that anyone looking at the baby as early as a week to ten days before he died, would recognize that he was very ill. But no one bothered to look.

In August 1999, Heikamp and Martin were arrested and charged with “criminal negligence causing death.” Heikamp had lied, but the professionals around her were all too quick to believe her lies, blind to the evidence that was right before their eyes. Why didn’t Martin pick up the phone to verify whether a medical appointment for Jordan had been made or kept? Yet after an eight-month preliminary hearing, Judge Mary Hogan of the Ontario Court excused this professional blindness and dismissed the criminal charges against both women.

“I find no evidence of wanton or reckless disregard for Jordan’s life,” Hogan concluded. “She [Heikamp] did what was in her experience and when someone told her differently, she complied.”

But did anyone ever challenge Heikamp’s care of Jordan and did she ever comply?

Again, “If anyone who was supposedly supervising her had given any thought to what she was saying, they would have realized it made no sense and signalled a real problem with the baby.”

Crown counsel Paul Culver said that he felt Judge Hogan “had made an error, that she had gone further than a preliminary hearing judge should and made findings of credibility.” The Crown could still have sought a preferred indictment which, if successful, would have sent the two women directly to trial, but Culver felt that such a trial could have been three years in the waiting.

Heikamp could not be forced to testify at a trial. The jury might not convict a teen mum and a middle-aged social worker, and if it did, how much jail time would they be given? The Crown decided to go for an inquest.

A coroner’s inquest is presided over by a medical doctor. The rules of evidence are less strict and the jury cannot make findings of blame, only recommendations which are usually directed to governments and organizations. Witnesses give evidence that cannot be used against them in other proceedings. When Heikamp testified at the coroner’s inquest, she could not be charged, regardless of how she incriminated herself.

After hearing 53 days of evidence, the inquest jury ruled Jordan Heikamp’s death a homicide. “It was not an accident,” said coroner Dr. Jim Cairns, adding that the mother’s actions were to blame. A homicide verdict in an inquest does not carry any legal responsibility even though it means the killing of a human being by another human being.

The Ontario coroner’s office speaks “for the dead to protect the living.” The inquest made 44 recommendations, including:

  • that child protection workers realize that their client is the child in need of protection, not the parent;
  • that children’s aid workers hold weekly face-to-face home visits with children under four months;
  • that child protection workers be made aware that some young people in the shelter system have become “adept at lying and manipulation”;
  • that shelter staff offer help without being asked;
  • that shelter workers be educated to recognize the signs of when a baby is not thriving; and
  • that the time for children’s aid workers to assess the risks of newborns be shortened to seven days from 21.

Recently, another teen mother was found responsible of homicide in the death of her child. Monica Wapoose, who was 19 when her son Brandon was born, had only a grade five education and a drinking problem. Ten-month-old Brandon died in 1999, the same year as Jordan, weighing less than 11 pounds, half the normal weight for a baby his age. The child, who had been fed CoffeeMate diluted with water, died of complications from malnutrition.

The public inquiry into the death of Brandon, who lived on Fox Lake Reserve in northwestern Alberta, made no recommendations. A brief three-paragraph report was released 16 months after the inquiry ended. Provincial Court Judge Richard McIntosh simply found, “Brandon’s death was a tragic event but an isolated one.” Yet during the six-day inquiry, officials testified that there were several other malnourished children in the community, including Brandon’s sister who was taken into care.

The inquiry into Brandon Wapoose’s death seems an insult to his memory and is raising concerns in several communities. The inquest into Jordan Heikamp’s death, however, seemed to dignify his little life. Only in death did anyone take notice of him. His inquest affirmed that babies, even if they are not valued by their own mothers, are human beings worthy of nurture and protection.

Yet if Jordan had been abducted by a stranger and starved to death, would we have been more outraged? Are mothers allowed to commit infanticide because their children are viewed as their property, extensions of their ego, at least until the child can run away?

If Jordan’s father had starved the child, would we have sent him to trial? In fact, Catherine Brooks, the head of Anduhyaun, admitted at the inquest that she advised investigating police officers that “the person who is probably most responsible in the death of this child” was the infant’s father. Somehow our society expects men, but not women, to be monsters. Did we learn nothing from Karla Homolka?

If Heikamp had smashed her infant’s head against a brick wall, would we have been more outraged? Why is it that the quiet sins of omission, the things not done, seem less troubling than the loud sins of commission? Neglect is still child abuse, and is recognized today as sufficient grounds for apprehending a child and placing her in care.

A mother who is alone needs critical support. All too often social workers engage in a culture of nonjudgmental encouragement. There are few demands made or rules laid down for fear the client will not comply but instead disappear off the radar screen. Only it was Jordan who disappeared – for good. (Heikamp gave birth to a second child, a daughter, during her preliminary hearing. That child was placed in care.)

Many disadvantaged teen mums rearrange their lives and provide well for their children, ensuring they receive attention and affection. These mothers either place their children for adoption, or learn sound parenting skills from people who model it for them.

It is not enough for street kids like Renee Heikamp to have wonderful dreams. They need to be given the skills and tools and mentors to fulfil their dreams. Yet let’s not be naive. We also need to watch and listen to the children themselves. We need to be “as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Somehow we only seem to get the dove part right. We are too trusting, too gullible, and so little children like Jordan Heikamp and Brandon Wapoose end up dead.