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Families give up on province, hope for police probe of care home east of Toronto

A "disturbing" military report into conditions at a long-term care home east of Toronto has given families of loved ones who died of COVID-19 there hope that police will investigate.

A "disturbing" military report into conditions at a long-term care home east of Toronto has given families of loved ones who died of COVID-19 there hope that police will investigate.

Some families said they had given up on the provincial government, so they've asked Durham regional police to investigate Orchard Villa in Pickering, Ont.

"The government could have done more, but it's too late," said Fred Cramer, whose mother, Ruth Cramer, died of COVID-19 at the home on April 19. "Now it's time for the police to investigate."

There have been 78 deaths due to COVID-19 at the home and retirement centre, according to the Durham Region Health Department.

Last week, more than 50 families sent a letter to Chief Paul Martin alleging criminal negligence and failure to provide the necessaries of life during the pandemic.

In a written response, Martin said he has assigned the force's Investigative Services Branch to look into the issue.

"Our team will review the material as it relates to the Criminal Code and will also reach out to other agencies with pre-existing mandates of oversight into the matters identified," the chief wrote, adding a senior inspector has taken carriage of the file.

In their letter, the families detailed a litany of problems at the home: malnourishment and dehydration of residents; inadequate personal protective equipment for staff and patients; mingling between COVID-19-positive residents and those not infected; and inadequate staffing levels, among other issues.

"Our own observations and what contact we could manage with our loved ones demonstrates that they were malnourished, dehydrated, and not receiving basic care for days, and in some cases weeks, that they deteriorated badly, and over 70 people died," the families wrote.

The administrator of Orchard Villa did not respond to a request for comment.

Cramer said his mother was eating in the dining room with other residents after the COVID outbreak began.

"Why was that happening? It doesn't make sense," he said. 

He last saw his mother on March 13, just before the provincial lockdown, but communication became difficult due to her dementia. Calls to the home felt worthless, he said.

"They just kept saying 'She's eating, she's drinking and she's happy.' It really felt like a script because that's all they said every time I called," he said.

On April 15, Cramer got a call saying his mother had tested positive for COVID-19. He didn't even know she had symptoms, but knew the novel coronavirus had made its way inside the home by then.

She had a low-grade fever and lethargy, he was told by the home.

In a video call the next day, he said his mother "looked awful" and had tears in her eyes.

"Hi mama," Cramer told her, "I love you."

On April 19, his mother was dead.

Premier Doug Ford called in the Canadian Armed Forces last month to help five hard-hit long-term care homes, including Orchard Villa.

In a report released earlier this week, the military said it found cockroaches and rotting food lying around the home, along with used personal protective gear. Patients were left in soiled diapers and some patients were fed lying down, which may have contributed to the choking death of one person.

"That disturbing military report confirmed my suspicions about the care in the home," Cramer said.

June Morrison's father, George William Morrison, died of COVID-19 three weeks ago in hospital after contracting it at Orchard Villa.

Morrison said her father lived in a room with three others, who all tested positive for the disease, and wasn't moved to a new room until days later.

She alleges her father was malnourished.

"We believe there are criminal acts, we believe the home is responsible for the staff and patients getting sick, so the police have to investigate," she said.

"I promised my dad I'd right the wrongs for him and that's what I'm doing and why we've gone to police."

Morrison said a detective called her this week and told her he was pulling her father's file from various provincial ministries.

A spokesman for the Durham force declined to provide details, other than to say they are "reviewing" the complaint.

Simon Nisbet was able to get his mother, who tested positive for COVID-19, out of Orchard Villa and into the local hospital, and believes he saved her life by doing so.

He said his mother's kidneys have been damaged due to "extreme dehydration" and she is now slowly recovering at Lakeridge Health hospital.

"It's neglect and it's not just the families saying it anymore — so is the military," Nisbet said. "The police need to start a criminal investigation."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 28, 2020.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press