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Victims' families upset over treatment

Globe and Mail Update

New Westminster, B.C. — Members of victims families at the Robert Pickton trial walked out of a tense meeting with senior staff from the victims service office Saturday, furious with the level of support provided to them.

“Nothing has been resolved,” said Rick Frey, the father of Marnie Frey, told reporters.

The families voiced their concerns but failed to receive any commitment to change anything, he said.

Earlier in the day, about 20 members of the victims' families held an emotionally meeting with representatives of the victim services office to air numerous complaints and prepare for the verdict.

But the meeting behind closed doors did not satisfied the distraught family members.

The session ended with tears, frayed nerves and a commitment for another meeting.

Family members told reporters later they were disturbed by how they are being treated by the government agency that was formed to help victims.

They were upset by restrictions that limited government support to assistance only for immediate family and for only two family members.

Lori-Ann Ellis, the sister-in-law of Cara Ellis, was in tears after failing to receive assistance from the victim services staff. “I'm just not recognized as part of the family,” she said. Cara Ellis, who was allegedly murdered by Mr. Pickton is among 20 victims included in a second trial.

Mr. Frey said her wife Lynn, who was involved in his daughter Marnie's life and in raising Marnie Frey's daughter, was not accepted as immediate family. He said he had to pay for her costs while they wait for the verdict.

Susanne Dahlin, executive director of the province's victim services unit, said she understands emotions are running high, but defended her staff as doing the best they can during “a difficult and trying time.”

“We can always do better,” Ms. Dahlin told a crowded media scrum in bitingly cold weather outside the courthouse. "But this is a precedent-setting case, and we are into eight days [of waiting for the jury].

“You can imagine how people are feeling. There is a lot of trauma here, and we are trying to be as sympathetic and supportive as we can.”

She said one of the families' biggest complaints-- that the definition of family members eligible for financial support as they wait for the verdict includes only blood relatives, leaving out in-laws and supportive friends -- is based on existing definitions and the need to allocate limited space in the courtroom.

But Ms. Dahlin said that definition will be re-examined in time for Mr. Pickton's anticipated second trial on 20 more charges of murdering missing women from the Downtown Eastside. “We don't make that decision on our own.”

She said she knows some individuals are upset and she has met with them to try to resolve matters.

“I think we can always do a better job. Some decisions are ours, some decisions are not ours, and some are based on rules we have to explain to people.”

Ms. Dahlin's remarks did nothing to calm Ms. Ellis, who has been denied financial support, despite sitting in on the trial for days.

“I've paid for my own transportation, my own food and everything else,” Ms. Ellis said, despite coming here from Calgary to tend to the frail emotions of Cara Ellis's mother, Judith Trimble.

When they asked for a smoking room in the Hyatt hotel where family members were originally housed, a victim services employee told them that city ordinances banned smoking in hotels. However, when they arrived, the hotel had at least one full floor of rooms where smoking is permitted.

“If I did my job that sloppily, I'd be out of work,” Ms. Ellis said.

The family members were also upset with efforts by a Crown prosecutor to edit comments they hoped to make to the court in victim impact statements, if Mr. Pickton is found guilty.

“We're not allowed to say what we feel,” said Cynthia Cardinal, a sister of Georgina Papin, one of six women that Mr. Pickton is accused of murdering.

Ms. Cardinal said she was told what she prepared was too much like a hate letter. “But that is what I feel,” Ms. Cardinal said.

Mr. Frey, said he was required to revise his impact statement several times. He was told he was not allowed to say some of the things he wanted to say.

Stan Lowe, a spokesman for the Crown prosecutors' office, confirmed that a prosecutor met with the families. He declined to comment on the meeting with the families.

The 12-member jury is now in its ninth day of deliberations. The trial began on Jan. 22 and heard from 128 witnesses.

Mr. Pickton is charged with the murder of Sereena Abotsway, Andrea Joesbury, Mona Wilson, Georgina Papin, Brenda Wolfe and Marnie Frey.

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