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It happened like this.

Toddler Sherry Charlie was crying hard on the afternoon of Sept. 4, 2002, a high-pitched screaming. Her foster father, Ryan George, tried to calm her. He held the 19-month-old but she didn't want to be held. And then he snapped.

In a fit of rage, he banged her head on the floor three times. He kicked her in the stomach with his bare foot, maybe twice. Her eyes rolled back in her head. She went quiet, just lying there.

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Mr. George, 30 and the father of three children of his own, tried CPR. Nothing happened. He called 911 and waited.

After two or three minutes, he panicked.

He picked up the little body and carried it to the bottom of the circular carpeted stairs, trying to make the death look like an accident.

When the ambulance arrived, he claimed that Sherry's three-year-old brother Jamie, who was also living with the family, had pushed her down the stairs.

Three years after her brutal killing, Sherry's death has become one of the blackest marks on Gordon Campbell's Liberal government. The toddler had been placed in Mr. George's home under a government "kith and kin" program that provides for children at risk to be placed with friends or members of their extended family.

Circumstances surrounding Sherry's death have focused attention on the quality of B.C.'s child protection system; the pitfalls in transferring child protection services to native agencies; and the impact of deep cuts in budgets for children's services.

For weeks, Sherry's death dominated Question Period in the legislature.

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As NDP critic Adrian Dix repeatedly pressed for answers, six separate reviews were announced to fill in what was left out of an internal government report on the incident.

Harvey Charlie, grandfather of Sherry and Jamie, has urged the appointment of a judge or child advocate from outside the province to conduct a comprehensive inquiry.

Now, new information from court testimony, some previously subject to a publication ban, reveals in detail what happened that September afternoon, including shocking revelations:

Claudette Lucas, Mr. George's wife, was a family service worker with the USMA Nuu Chah Nulth Community and Human Service Agency at the time the native agency did an assessment on whether her home would be an appropriate placement for Sherry and her brother, who were the grandchildren of Ms. Lucas's sister. Mr. George had a criminal record including 19 offences, three of which involved assaulting Ms. Lucas. Despite his violent history, she felt the two children would be safe because, as far as she knew, he had never harmed children.

The coroner and police met with senior staff at USMA a week after Sherry's death to tell them that her injuries could not by explained by a fall down the stairs. On Sept. 17, 2002, the coroner delivered the same message to the Ministry of Children and Family Development. On Oct. 31, USMA received a written summary of the coroner's preliminary autopsy findings. Despite the disclosure, the native agency kept Sherry's brother, Jamie, in the home. A ministry review dated Nov. 8, 2002, concluded that Jamie and Mr. George's three children could remain in the home and were not in need of protection.

Ms. Lucas agreed to co-operate with police in the spring of 2003 after she lost her job, and child-protection officials removed her three children. She hoped to get her children back by co-operating with police. Surreptitiously taping a conversation with her husband, she sang to him, talked with him about their lives and led him into admitting that he had killed Sherry.

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Ms. Lucas was not available for comment for this story. Mr. George, who is now serving a 10-year sentence for manslaughter, and staff from the Nuu Chah Nulth child protection agency declined to be interviewed.

The Nuu Chah Nulth First Nation on Vancouver Island has a population of about 8,000. Its territory stretches along 300 kilometres of the Pacific coast and inland to Port Alberni. The USMA agency is one of seven native agencies that has taken over responsibility for child protection. USMA has dealt with 5,000 cases over the past 18 years, Chief Shawn Atleo, spokesman for the tribal council, has said.

Details about Ms. Lucas's employment with USMA and her ex-husband's criminal history come from testimony during the preliminary hearing and sentencing of Mr. George, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter in October, 2004.

USMA became involved with Sherry's family in 1999, shortly after the birth of Jamie. The agency was called on numerous occasions to deal with concerns arising from alcoholism, spousal assaults and neglect of children.

In the summer of 2002, the children's mother, Julianna Frank, heard that the agency was going to remove her two children. She took Sherry to her mother in Port Alberni. But April Lucas felt she could not care for the toddler and asked her sister, Claudette Lucas, to take in the children.

So Sherry and Jamie were moved into Ms. Lucas's home. Around then, USMA had Ms. Lucas and her husband sign a kith-and-kin agreement that gave them the rights of foster parents.

The day that Sherry was killed began uneventfully, Ms. Lucas recalled during the preliminary hearing. She and her husband, their three children, and Jamie and Sherry all piled into the family's Ford Taurus station wagon to go to Parksville to test drive a Ford minivan. They returned to Port Alberni around 4:30 p.m. Then, because the children had dentist appointments in Nanaimo the next day, the family decided to go there and stay overnight in a hotel.

Ms. Lucas dashed off to the grocery store with her nine-year-old daughter, Brooklyn, to pick up some food. When they left the house, Jamie was playing with Ms. Lucas's four-year-old daughter, Joycelyn, and two-year-old son, Kwasah. Sherry was trying to follow along.

An hour later, Ms. Lucas was paged at the store. A firefighter told her there had been an accident and she had to go home.

Two days later, Vancouver forensic pathologist Dan Straathof began examining Sherry's body. He saw several broken ribs, suggesting her death did not occur from a fall down stairs. He stopped the examination and notified police, then resumed on Sept. 9 with police present. He found broken ribs on both sides of her ribcage, internal abdominal bleeding, scalp contusions and bleeding in the brain cavity.

The final autopsy report states that the injuries causing Sherry's death likely resulted from a shake or kick. The injuries in her abdomen and to her head were caused by a forceful squeeze, a punch or a kick. The formal cause of death was battered child syndrome, better known as child abuse.

Timeline of tragedy

1999: The USMA Nuu Chah Nulth social agency on Vancouver Island becomes involved with Julianna Frank and Trevor Charlie shortly after the birth of their son, Jamie.

Jan. 16, 2001:Ms. Frank, now 19, gives birth to Sherry.

Summer, 2002: USMA begins preparations to remove Jamie and Sherry after concerns about alcohol abuse, spousal assault and child neglect.

Late August, 2002: Ms. Frank and her mother, April Lucas, arrange for 19-month-old Sherry and three-year-old Jamie to move into the home of Ryan George and Claudette Lucas.Ms. Lucas is April's sister and a family-support worker at USMA.

Sept. 4: Ms. Lucas goes shopping, leaving her husband at home with Sherry and three other children; when she returns, Sherry is dead. Mr. George says Jamie pushed her down the stairs.

Sept. 6: Vancouver forensic pathologist Dan Straathof starts an autopsy, sees signs that the death did not occur from a fall down stairs.

Sept. 9: Autopsy resumes with police present.

Sept. 11: Police tell senior staff at USMA that Sherry's injuries could not be explained by the fall.

Oct. 31: USMA receives a confidential summary of the coroner's preliminary autopsy findings.

Jan. 7, 2003: Mr. George moves out, leaving Ms. Lucas with their three children and Jamie.

Jan. 21: Police receive final autopsy report and begin a homicide probe.

Feb. 3: Jamie is removed from Ms. Lucas's care.

Feb. 24: Mr. George is arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder; Ms. Lucas is arrested on suspicion of criminal negligence causing death.

March, 2003: Ms. Lucas is suspended from her job at USMA.

April 29: She decides to co-operate with police.

June 4: With a wire in her purse and in her car, she extracts a confession from Mr. George. He is arrested later that day.

Oct. 4, 2004: Mr. George pleads guilty to manslaughter.

Oct. 5: He is sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Robert Matas

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