WARNING: This story contains images that may be disturbing.
The parents of a boy who lost a tooth and required several stitches to his lip after being bitten by a Winnipeg police dog say they’re heartbroken to learn Manitoba’s police watchdog decided not to investigate the matter — without ever talking to the family.
Femi and Omolara Aloba, the five-year-old boy’s parents, say they feel what happened to their son at his school last week has been downplayed in public and that neither the police, nor the body set up to investigate them, has treated the matter seriously.
“This saddens my heart right now, and I feel that we are probably being treated in a certain way,” said Femi Aloba.
“You don’t just sweep things under the carpet. You don’t just downplay things. You’re talking about a five-year-old,” he said. “He was in a safe spot … in his school.”
The child was bitten by the police dog during a Dec. 14 visit by the Winnipeg Police Service’s canine unit to Samuel Burland School, in the South St. Vital neighbourhood.
Police notified the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba, which is mandated to investigate all serious incidents involving police in the province, about the incident. Police are required under provincial legislation to notify the IIU of any incident where an officer is involved in a serious injury.
An investigator from the unit told CBC News on Wednesday that after reviewing the incident, they determined it did not fall within the “serious injury classification,” because the child was taken to hospital but not admitted.
The investigator further said the decision could change, and an independent investigation could be launched, if there is enough public interest in the incident.
The parents said they’ve never been contacted by anyone from the IIU and only learned about the unit’s decision to decline to investigate when they were contacted by the CBC.
A Winnipeg Police Service spokesperson said in an email to CBC Friday morning that both a police service inspector and staff sergeant met with the family the day the boy was bitten.
Police previously said they were investigating the incident, and that the dog would be removed from active service until a review is completed. The spokesperson said there was no further information to provide about the dog’s status as of Friday.
A harrowing ordeal
The boy’s mother said when she got to the school after the attack, she was immediately struck by the sight of blood and her son crying, and she started crying as well.
Someone from the school and a paramedic each gave her versions of what happened, said Omolara Aloba.
She was told the students were to take photos with the police dog. While walking toward the dog, her son tripped, she was told. According to one account, he fell on the dog. The other said he fell in front the dog.
In both versions, the dog then bit the child.
In a statement issued the day of the incident, school principal Ross Cathers said a student “was provided with the necessary medical care on-site” and transported to hospital as “an additional precaution.”
The boy’s parents, however, described injuries that required significant medical attention, saying a chunk of his lower lip was “dangling” after being torn by the bite.
They said they got to the hospital some time around noon and didn’t see a doctor until after 7 p.m.
“My son was so weak … because he couldn’t eat anything,” Omolara said.
They waited another hour after that, and the doctor told them because of nature of the injuries, a plastic surgeon would have to do the stitching.
Psychological effects on the child
Just over a week later, the parents say their son is doing better, but they see scars that run deeper than those on his lips.
“My child is scared,” said the boy’s mom. When she takes him to bed, he now wants her to stay with him.
“He has never said that before. He has been sleeping on his own since he was a year old.”
She said he also asks her repeatedly, “Mommy, why did the dog bite me?”
The parents said they had a scare last Saturday, as the family ate.
The boy held his mouth and his throat and appeared as if he was choking or trying to vomit.
They say they tried to get him to tell them what was wrong — because he was only having spaghetti and vegetables — but for about 30 minutes he continued that way.
Femi Aloba says they called paramedics. Although they were eventually able to calm him down, he says they couldn’t explain what was wrong, so he insisted they go to the hospital.
There was no sign of a blockage of any kind, yet the child held onto his throat until he went to bed that night.
“We were really terrified,” said Femi Aloba. “That has never happened before. We’ve never had to take him to the hospital in a rush. He doesn’t have any allergies and he didn’t eat anything different from what he’s used to eating.”
Not serious enough: IIU
What the Independent Investigation Unit considers a serious injury is specifically defined, and doesn’t include every kind of injury.
While it does include “cuts or lacerations,” for example, it goes on to define those as injuries “that require admission to a hospital on an in-patient basis.”
It also includes “the loss of any part of the body.”
The family said the boy’s tooth was loose before the incident, but it was the force of the dog’s jaws that dislodged it.
“How serious can it get?” asked Omolara.
Femi said even if the injures don’t meet the unit’s standard, someone from the agency should have contacted the family to tell them.
“You don’t think that it’s important to reach out to the family? Do you know how difficult and how painful this has been for us?” he said. “We are glad that it wasn’t worse.”
The father also said there should be a level of responsibility from the IIU itself.
“If it were to be their own child, would they have said the same thing? Wouldn’t they have wanted to get an explanation of what happened, how it happened and what the organization would do to prevent it in the future?”
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