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In search of red flags in the Shafia case

Did Quebec's social services fail the Shafia women? In hindsight, it's easy to say yes. But the real question is whether, at the time, there was enough reason to remove the teenagers from their family.

Contrary to some press reports, there were no "repeated cries" for help. Over the course of two years, the Montreal child-protection system was called only twice. Each time, the social workers reacted promptly, but what they saw provided no sign there was a child at risk. The Shafia girls were well-dressed and healthy. They didn't even wear veils. They hadn't been molested. None of the signs associated with child abuse (alcohol, drugs, sexual promiscuity) were present.

Their basic complaint was that they were afraid of their father. But how many teenagers growing up in repressive households aren't? Another complaint – that they didn't have enough freedom – was again typical adolescent behaviour. And two of the girls recanted their accusations – again, typical behaviour from ambivalent immigrant kids caught in cultural and generational conflicts, torn between rebellion and submission, anger at and love for their parents.

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Much has been said about the fact that, at the time, Quebec had no provincewide registry of the various agencies' interventions. Would it have raised a red flag if the second team of social workers had known of an earlier intervention? This is far from certain; in Quebec at least, child protection agencies and the courts are extremely careful when it comes to removing a child from their natural environment. Breaking up a family and sending kids to foster homes can be much more damaging than keeping them in a dysfunctional household.

In any case, who could have foreseen that a father could coldly engineer the murder of three daughters? The only people who intuited that Mohammad Shafia might have criminal intentions were relatives of his first wife, Rona Amir, who had confided to her sister that she feared for her life, as well as relatives of his second wife, Tooba Yahya, who'd testified they'd heard him say that Zainab, the 19-year-old daughter, was a "slut" and that he wanted to kill her. They had personal contact with the family and knew about the oppressive atmosphere in the family home.

These people were from Afghanistan, and they knew about the "honour code." But even they apparently couldn't envision the monstrous scenario that would take place. A cousin of Zainab who lives in Montreal told the National Post that the worst he feared for her was that she would be forcibly sent to Dubai.

These relatives, even with their knowledge of Afghan culture, couldn't really believe Mr. Shafia would act on his threats. But when they learned of the "accident," they instantly knew something was wrong, and Rona Amir's sister contacted police.

In the aftermath of the Shafia tragedy, the social agencies will undoubtedly refine their ways of dealing with communities whose cultures are steeped in medieval "honour codes," but the people who can best prevent the repetition of such crimes are those who live within these communities: friends, relatives and community leaders.

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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