In the months before the Eaton Centre shooting, Christopher Husbands was supposed to be under house arrest in a suburban apartment awaiting trial on a sexual assault charge.
Instead, he was supervising children in an after-school program run by the city, playing soccer with them, helping with homework and taking part in craft-making sessions. Although he did not submit a required criminal background check, he was able to work there for more than six months. Mr. Husbands was fired on May 18, a little over two weeks before the incident at the downtown mall in which he is accused of killing Ahmed Hassan and wounding six others.
The revelation touched off a firestorm at city hall on Wednesday: Councillors and the mayor condemned the oversight, while the parks department hastily eliminated a policy that allows new hires to work with children for up to three months without a background check, and vowed to root out any other employees who had fallen through the cracks.
At Stan Wadlow Clubhouse in East York, where Mr. Husbands was employed, parents were surprised to learn an accused sex offender had been working there. Children, meanwhile, recalled him as a pleasant, helpful presence in the program.
"What is a guy doing in with six- to 12-year-old kids when he's charged with sexual assault?" said Lorraine Scattarelli, whose eight-year-old daughter, Emily, attends Stan Wadlow. "The most upsetting part is that Emily had developed a friendship with Chris, and it's hard to explain that the rest of the city is mad at this person."
Emily said Mr. Husbands was one of the nicest counsellors.
"He was my friend, he would always ask us how our day was," she said. "Whatever we needed help with, he would help."
Alessandra Murillo, meanwhile, said children look up to staff.
"This is a very vulnerable age; they see these guys as heroes," she said. "How do you know you can be safe in any of these programs? It's mind-boggling."
Mr. Husbands was charged with sexual assault in November, 2010. He was released on $4,000 bail the next month on condition he live with one of his two sureties in a Scarborough apartment. He was not to go out except for school or in the company of a surety.
In November, 2011, the month he started working for the city, Mr. Husbands applied for a background check, which would show any charges or convictions, police spokesman Mark Pugash said. The check took about two weeks and his application was "red flagged."
Mr. Husbands was contacted and asked to come in for finger printing, but never responded. Because of privacy legislation, Mr. Pugash said, the police could not share the information with anyone but the applicant.
Jim Hart, the general manager of Toronto's parks, forestry and recreation department, said there are likely other parks employees without a criminal background check on file.
"We followed up on a monthly basis with staff in the field after three months, sent out lists to follow up, and this one wasn't followed up [on.] Simple as that," he said. "I'm not pleased with that at all. That's why on a go-forward basis we have to make sure that we get these documents in place before the individuals start and not chase them after the fact."
Councillor Janet Davis, whose ward includes the community centre, introduced a motion at Wednesday's council meeting asking for a review of the city's police record check policy.