Updated: Feb 7, 2020
The foster care system is designed to put children in the best situation possible for them. I have no doubt that most employees of the system have the childrens’ best interests in mind, but mistakes are sometimes made, and the consequences can be disastrous. This story involves a Canadian foster child who, due to their Youth Criminal Justice Act, must remain anonymous. She’s been given several aliases, but for the sake of clarity, I’ll be calling her by the most common one I found for the duration of this video. This is the story of Jennie Ewing.
It’s not clear exactly when and where Jennie Ewing was born, but it was likely in Ontario around 1992. Whatever the case, Jennie’s early life wasn’t easy. Her mother was addicted to alcohol and drugs and tried to keep the family together for Jennie and her brother and sister. But at the age of two, Jennie was taken out of the home and adopted.
Growing up, Jennie struggled in her adoptive home. She had issues with anger and violence, personality disorders and had trouble in school. But when she assaulted her younger sister (it’s not clear if this was her adoptive sister or her biological one), that was the final straw. Jennie was given back to Children’s Aid and, for several years, was a Crown ward of Family and Children’s Services Niagara.
By 2005, now-13-year-old Jennie was living with a new foster family, but her problems continued. She soon began a relationship with a man who I believe was around the age of 40. Her foster parents tried to stop this, but to no avail. After stealing their truck on December 9, Jennie was removed from the home and, on December 14, was sent to live with her final foster family, the Burrows. Jennie was only supposed to stay with the Burrows for a short amount of time, but it turned out to be a much shorter visit than anyone anticipated.
Jennie arrived at her new foster home around 11 am on Wednesday, December 14 and was greeted by her new foster mother, Margaret Burrows. The Burrows had another child staying with them; three-year-old Matthew Reid. I found conflicting sources saying how long Matthew had been at the house; some said he had been there since he was ten months old, some said he had only been there a couple of months. Another source said he had been removed from his own biological mother at 10 months, so maybe this is what the first source actually meant.
Regardless, Margaret was clearly protective of Matthew. When Jennie arrived with a social worker, Margaret asked if Matthew would be safe with Jennie in the house. The social worker assured her that Jennie loved children and that Matthew would be perfectly fine. FACS Niagara is very discreet about childrens’ pasts, so all Margaret knew about Jennie was that she’d had theft and behavioral issues. Despite the social worker’s claim, Margaret made sure to never leave the children alone together.
The rest of the day passed without incident. Jennie woke early the next morning and Margaret continued to show her around the house. But around 8 am, she realized Matthew hadn’t woken up yet and grew concerned. She went upstairs to check on him and found him on the floor, lifeless.
Margaret immediately called 911 and paramedics rushed to the scene. They performed CPR, but were unsuccessful. Matthew was dead.
The truth wouldn’t be a mystery for long. Matthew had two handwritten notes placed under his right shoulder. One said “I smothered him. The police can do what they want to me. I don’t care. Let them put me in jail.” The other said “‘Mommy’ was the last thing he said.” Both notes were signed by Jennie Ewing.
Police went to Jennie’s room, where they found her sitting calmly in front of the mirror, brushing her hair. She confessed right away and was arrested.
After going to bed at 9 pm on the night of December 14, Jennie had woken up again at 2 am in a fit of anger. She didn’t want to be at a new foster home, and would have rather been back at one of her previous ones. In fact, two days earlier, one of Jennie’s former foster mothers had agreed to take her back. But that didn’t happen. Instead, three-year-old Matthew became the target for Jennie to take her rage out on. She went to his room, took him out of his crib and placed him on the floor. Then she smothered him, probably with a pillow. It’s believed that Matthew probably never saw his killer’s face. Once he went still, Jennie, who was presumably on her period at the time, drew a cross on his forehead with the blood and also smeared blood on his cheeks. Then she went back to her room, wrote the two notes, placed them under his shoulder and went back to bed.
But not everyone was sure these charges were fair. Jennie was thought to have ADHD, as well as either fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol effect (which is less severe). It couldn’t be determined which one of these two she had, if either, because not much was known about her birth mother. However, she was believed to have the emotional and mental state of a 6 or 7 year old. Because of this, the charges were later reduced to second degree murder.
Jennie’s trial began in January 2007 and she was tried as a juvenile. Jennie, who was 15 at this point, cried as details of the case were read. On Monday, January 22, 2007, she pleaded guilty to second degree murder. She was eventually sentenced to seven years in prison, which means she should be out by now. I’ve seen reports that said she’s now living with her father or stepfather, but can’t confirm this.
After the murder, social services in Canada came under fire. Unsurprisingly, Matthew’s birth mother, Tania Reid, was furious. Matthew had been taken from her for his own protection — but he had still ended up dead. After Jennie pled guilty, Tania wondered if it was known that Jennie was at risk for violence before being placed with the Burrows (though, from everything I can tell, social services was well aware of this).
On January 31, 2007 it was announced that there would be an inquest into Matthew’s death. The inquest would be handled by a five person 'coroner’s jury’, which would “make recommendations aimed at preventing deaths in similar circumstances in the future.” The inquest began in February 2010 and wrapped up about a month later. The jury came up with 45 recommendations “to avoid future similar deaths of children in care.” The recommendations were for several different organizations, including FACS Niagara, Niagara Child and Youth Services and the Children’s Aid Society of Haldimand-Norfolk (where Matthew Reid was a ward at the time of his death). I don’t know much about how these recommendations have been put into practice, but hopefully they either have or will prevent something like this from happening again.
So that’s almost everything I could find on Jennie Ewing, and I’m curious to know your thoughts. Who do you think is more to blame for Matthew’s death: Jennie or FACS Niagara? Or do they deserve equal blame? Do you think the criticism of social services is justified, or would you rather focus on the fact that this case is a rarity and most social workers have the best intentions? Let me know in the comments.