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Did Catholic Children's Aid Society fail baby Miguel Fernandes?

Has the name of baby Miguel Fernandes joined the too-long list of youngsters failed by the Catholic Children's Aid Society of Toronto?

First of these was Sara Podniewicz, who died on April 25, 1994, while under the supervision of the CCAS; the baby's parents were later convicted of second-degree murder. Next was Jordan Heikamp, who starved to death on June 23, 1997, at a native shelter for homeless teens while ostensibly under the agency's watchful eye; a coroner's inquest called the death a homicide. Then came Jeffrey Baldwin, who on Nov. 30, 2002, died of septic shock and pneumonia after being placed by the CCAS in the care of his grandparents, both previously convicted of child abuse. The grandparents were convicted of second-degree murder.

Miguel was born on Feb. 11, 2006, to young parents who either didn't want him or couldn't care for him (likely a bit of each), was immediately apprehended by the CCAS, and, when he was "returned" to them more than six months later, it was to a small, squalid, cockroach-infested apartment in the Jane Street corridor in the city's northwest end.

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His mother was Melissa Alexander, a young black woman, then 21, who reportedly didn't want to keep him. His dad was Sergio Fernandes, a 22-year-old man of Portuguese descent who hadn't even told his parents his girlfriend was pregnant.

Only when Ms. Alexander gave birth at St. Michael's Hospital did Mr. Fernandes tell his mother, Maria, that he had a son - and also, according to Ms. Fernandes, that Ms. Alexander had "told the nurse she didn't want him. Sergio asked me to go to the hospital. I was in shock, I couldn't believe it." By the time Ms. Fernandes made it downtown just 20 minutes later, the CCAS already had taken the baby into care.

Agency social workers "continued to work with the family all the way through to Miguel's death," executive director Mary McConville told The Globe and Mail.

While Ms. McConville is limited in what she can discuss about Miguel's particular case, she confirmed that this work generally involves determining if the child is safe or in continuing need of protection through regular supervision, home visits and the like.

The agency has done an internal review of the case and sent it to the office of Ontario's chief coroner. A decision on whether to call an inquest is on hold pending final court proceedings.

But Ms. McConville readily agrees that a dead child doesn't equal success. "Obviously," she said in a recent interview, "it was a serious case."

Whether the CCAS did its job isn't yet clear, at least publicly, but with the wisdom of hindsight, the Alexander/Fernandes clan appears to have been clearly troubled and inept.

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The couple had first met at Central Technical School downtown, where Ms. Alexander was a city-ranked athlete, sufficiently talented that at one time she is said to have been offered a tryout with a U.S. college.

But when she was just 19, Ms. Alexander gave birth to her first child, Shawn, who was almost three at the time of his baby brother's death.

According to Ms. Fernandes, Ms. Alexander originally claimed that Shawn was also Sergio's. "There's no way that baby was my grandson," Ms. Fernandes told The Globe. She later paid $700 for a DNA test, and sure enough, it proved her son hadn't fathered Shawn.

But she wanted to help Sergio raise Miguel, if not raise him herself with her husband. She spoke to a lawyer, and was willing to go to court, but in the end, Sergio refused to sign the necessary papers.

In the spring of 2007, the couple moved into the two-bedroom Jane Street apartment with Shawn and Miguel; by July that year, Mr. Fernandes was working with his father as a bricklayer, long days that saw him picked up in a van about 6 a.m. and not return for 12 hours.

So it was on Sept. 11, 2007. Mr. Fernandes was on the job all day, Ms. Alexander home alone with the two boys. He phoned her on the way home to check in; she told him Miguel had pulled over a pot of hot water she was using to crimp her hair and burned his legs, but that it was nothing serious.

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That hair-crimping story, Ontario Superior Court Judge Anne Molloy found this week in convicting Ms. Alexander of manslaughter, was an utter fabrication - experts testified that Miguel had an "immersion" injury, meaning he'd probably been plonked in a scalding tub, with the result that 40 per cent of his body - the lower half - suffered catastrophic burns.

Judge Molloy said it was likely that Miguel was burned about 1 p.m. and certainly before 4, when the strapping young woman left the boys for two hours while she went shopping - buying, among other things, two Kanye West CDs.

By the time Toronto Police Sergeant Larry Hicks arrived with a search warrant a couple of days later, the flat reeked of the little boy's vomit; blankets, sheets and clothing, stained with the vital fluids that had leaked out of him as he died, were everywhere, and the cockroaches were in charge. What seems to have been the inexorable trajectory of Miguel's life ended with pieces of his ravaged flesh tossed into two garbage cans.

More on this saga tomorrow.

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