Two young mothers sat in a prisoner’s box with heads bowed, crying continuously for hours during a sentencing hearing Thursday in Edmonton Court of Queen’s Bench.
J.L., 26, and her one-time best friend, A.M., 25, entered guilty pleas last September to two counts of aggravated assault and one count of confinement.
The victims were J.L.’s two daughters, who were three and six years old when they were repeatedly beaten and confined in late 2017.
A publication ban on the women’s names was ordered to protect the identity of the girls, who are now wards of the province and living in kinship care.
Crown prosecutor Jayme Williams said J.L. moved from Calgary to Edmonton in the summer of 2017, fleeing “a difficult situation with an ex-spouse with a drug problem.”
She and her two daughters moved in with A.M. and her three children in a north Edmonton townhouse.
But the home became a dangerous place for the two girls.
“They did not live in a safe environment,” Williams said. “These two young girls were whipped repeatedly with leather belts.”
One belt had a buckle. The children’s bodies are covered with permanent scars reflecting what Williams described as “corporal punishment.”
J.L. stopped sending her daughters to school or daycare on Nov. 1, 2017, because she was concerned staff would see and report the children’s injuries.
For six weeks, the sisters were locked up in the townhouse basement with only a mattress on the floor.
Sometimes, one girl was confined inside a large cardboard box, the lid taped shut, a rug placed on top. Both girls were often denied food and water. There was no bathroom or running water in the basement.
By the time the children were rescued from their basement prison by a babysitter in December 2017, the basement smelled of urine and the floor was soiled with feces.
They were dehydrated, malnourished and injured.
“They had been locked in the basement by a dresser pushed up against the door,” Williams said. “But for the babysitter hearing the girls knocking and asking to be let out … we may never have known how badly these children were being abused.”
‘She was tired of everything’
Williams suggested both women should receive a seven to eight-year sentence, arguing the prolonged abuse and confinement was not a momentary lapse.
“They are children who have no means to protect themselves from the two adults who are meant to care for them,” Williams said. “There are weapons being used against them. They are confined. Their food is being restricted.”
The women have been in custody since they were arrested in December 2017. The Crown has agreed they should receive two for one credit for the amount of time served in segregation at the Edmonton remand centre.
In psychiatric assessments prepared for the sentencing hearing, A.M. said she abused her friend’s children because she resented feeling obligated to take care of J.L.’s children along with to her own.
“She indicates she was tired,” Williams told the court. “There were just so many kids. They weren’t listening. Sitting wasn’t making them work. She was tired of everything.”
The Crown noted A.M.’s three children were well-fed and uninjured, indicating the young mother knew right from wrong.
“She didn’t do it to her own,” Williams said. “She had control when it came to her children even though she was abusing alcohol and drugs.”
The only explanation provided to a forensic psychiatrist by J.L. for the abuse was that she was depressed and stopped caring about what happened to her daughters.
“She wasn’t sleeping enough and she was using cocaine,” Williams said, noting J.L. slept on the couch in the living room, while she left her daughters to fend for themselves in the basement. She barricaded the door so they couldn’t sneak out for food, water or to use the bathroom.
‘The girls are going to be OK’
The two victims are now wards of the province and live in a kinship care arrangement where they are exposed to their Indigenous culture.
A victim impact statement written by the caregiver was read by the Crown described the girls as “scared, alone and broken” when they first joined their family.
“In the end I know the girls are going to be OK. I know this, because they have made it this far,” the caregiver wrote. “The scars will fade, the abuse will be a distant memory. But the void of you not being there for their milestones will be the hardest part of their lives because they both love you so much.”
The girls’ caseworker also provided a written update, describing the older sister as “a bright and cheerful eight-year-old” and the younger girl as “an energetic and determined five-year-old.”
Both girls had nightmares when they came into care. The case worker wrote that now when one of them has a nightmare, “her caregivers sit with her, smudge her room and pray with her and this helps.”
The case worker noted that both little girls know their mother is in jail.
They both say they miss her.