The Long Read below is the CBC Ombudsman's review regarding a complaint of “shoddy journalism” brought forward by Frank Lo Greco (Expanding Horizons Family Services Inc.) about a segment of The Fifth Estate called “Fatal Care”, which aired on February 18th, 2021.
The focus of the report by host Bob McKeown was the 2019 death of a 15-year-old boy named David Roman, who was fatally stabbed in a for-profit foster home in Ontario. Another teenager living in the home has been charged with murder.
Here is the link to the review which is also posted below verbatim
Fairness on The Fifth Estate
Nov 12, 2021
Complainant Frank Lo Greco thought a Fifth Estate investigation into standards at privately-owned foster homes was “shoddy journalism”. He thought that there was too much information that had not been verified, and that it was premature to run the documentary. In this review, I consider the obligations of journalists when one side of the story won’t talk.
COMPLAINT You complained about a segment of The Fifth Estate called “Fatal Care”, which aired on February 18th. The focus of the report by host Bob McKeown was the 2019 death of a 15-year-old boy named David Roman, who was fatally stabbed in a for-profit foster home in Ontario. Another teenager living in the home has been charged with murder.
You are a senior executive with a company called Expanding Horizons Family Services Inc., which owned the foster home where the incident took place. You wrote to me that Mr. McKeown and producer Jonathan Sher were guilty of “shoddy journalism”: I believe both failed to retrieve documentation to support the reliability of those sources and their stories; the onus is on them to verify all information, even when it emerges on deadline.
The essence of your complaint was that the story painted an untrue and unfair portrait of your company. You acknowledged that CBC’s journalists provided you with an opportunity to be interviewed, but you had to decline “out of respect for everyone involved, including the publication ban and civil suit.” You argued that CBC should have waited to report on its story until it was able to incorporate your side, and that by not doing so there were mistakes made.
For instance, you took exception to a section of the report which said: Until it was taken down last fall, the company website identified the other senior executive as Program Director Frank Lo Greco, seen here with his wife Karen. She’s listed as the company’s ‘Registered Behaviour Consultant’, but we could find no professional authority in Ontario responsible for registering ‘Behaviour Consultants’.
And the Fifth Estate editorial team found other obvious problems. The woman named as Executive Director of Expanding Horizons says she didn’t have that job at all and when she complained to the company and asked that her name be taken off the website. They didn’t do it.
The lawyer listed as legal counsel wasn’t a licensed lawyer. He’d given that up in 2018 when it was learned that he had misappropriated almost half a million dollars from clients.
And the so-called, ‘Psychiatric Consultant’ wasn’t a licensed psychiatrist, in fact he wasn’t a licensed doctor. He’d given up that license a number of years before. Yet despite all of that, those names remained on the Expanding Horizons website.
In your opinion, CBC should have known that this website was outdated. “The agency deals primarily with CAS agencies,” you wrote. “We don’t deal with (the) general public.”
You also explained that your wife had, in fact, been certified - but in the United States, and under her maiden name.
You also expressed concern about how The Fifth Estate depicted the way Expanding Horizons dealt with Jordan Calver, the foster parent who was supervising the home at the time that David Roman was killed.
The program reported that Mr. Calver had filed a lawsuit against your company: In court documents the aspiring chef, with no background in foster care or parenting, claims his only training was a couple of days at the local library. He says he was promised there’d be no foster children with violent histories .
In your complaint you said that the truth was quite different: With an in-depth look and review during their investigative journalism, they would have known that (the) foster parent was provided training, observation, orientation and a variety of courses documented and forwarded to our lawyers. They would have also been provided the information if they contacted other foster parents.
You also said there was ample support for the foster parent: Both journalists would have known a staff member supported the home. We have time sheets and evidence that debunks the claim that he did not receive any supports. Further, children in his care would have been able to verify or dismiss his claim.
You wrote that the end result of CBC’s segment was a “domino effect of defamatory articles from various news outlets.” And you suggested it was because CBC rushed to broadcast its story prematurely:
Their pressing deadlines compromised Mr. McKeown and Mr. Sher's moral imperative to air (the) segment.
Cecil Rosner, who was the Executive Producer of The Fifth Estate at the time the program aired, replied to your complaint. He wrote that CBC’s journalists researched the story with “great care”:
There were no "pressing deadlines" imposed on them. I do not understand your comment that you declined to be interviewed in part because of the "civil suit." You were approached for comment in October 2020, before any civil suit was filed. We gave you and Mr. Perrelli full and ample opportunity to respond, months before the story ran, and you both chose not to. There was no publication ban which prohibited you from discussing in general terms how your home operated. All of the points you have raised now could have been raised in October, and would have been included in our coverage, to the extent that they were responsive to the questions we were raising.
Mr. Rosner did not accept your contention that CBC’s description of your website was problematic:
You say that our journalists ought to have known that your website was outdated. With respect, it is your website and it was online for the world to view when we researched the story. It was only taken down after we began making inquiries. If you don't deal with the general public, I do not understand why you publish a website that anyone can search and find.
As for your argument that Jordan Calver had received appropriate training and support, Mr. Rosner said that it was appropriate for CBC to report on the allegations made by Mr. Calver and by David Roman’s parents. “If you have any actual evidence to the contrary,” he wrote, “we would be happy to examine it.
REQUEST FOR REVIEW You wrote that you were “very unsatisfied” with CBC’s response.
You suggested that although the civil suit had not been filed at the time you were contacted by Mr. McKeown, your company had already been made aware that it was pending, so it made sense that lawyers for Expanding Horizons would have advised you not to speak publicly about the case. While you agreed that there was no publication ban prohibiting you from discussing in more general terms how the home operated, you said that it was evident CBC would also ask about the specific incident:
I'm not certain how to discuss the incident with absolute accuracy without contravening the order.
You shared with me examples of various corporate policies regarding training and support services that you said debunk the allegations made against Expanding Horizons. You also shared a copy of an internal company report detailing a previous incident involving the youth who is now accused of murdering David Roman, to demonstrate the degree of support offered to the foster parent. For the sake of transparency, you even invited me to come to your office to review schedules, incident reports and other records, which you said would be redacted to ensure privacy.
The offer was admirable, and I appreciated your willingness to let me assess the situation for myself. In this case, though, I declined your invitation. As I explained to you in a phone conversation, my task is to assess CBC’s journalism and conduct, not to assess (or be a forum for evaluating) the merits of Expanding Horizons. Given that CBC would not have had access to these documents before broadcast, their content would not affect the outcome of my review - although it was clear that I would have to consider whether proceeding with the broadcast was appropriate.
REVIEW The Fifth Estate is a program rooted in investigative journalism, and you have questioned whether CBC in this case lived up to the responsibilities associated with investigative journalism. So it makes sense to begin this review by sharing with you how CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices document (the JSP) describes what investigative journalism is:
Investigative journalism is a specific genre of reporting which can lead to conclusions and, in some cases, strong editorial judgments. A journalistic investigation is usually based on a premise but we do not broadcast an investigative report until we have ensured that the facts and evidence support the conclusions and judgments.
To achieve fairness, we diligently attempt to present the point of view of the person or institution being investigated.
It struck me as important to remember that the purpose of this Fifth Estate documentary was not only about the tragic death of David Roman, or about the role of Expanding Horizons. The report posed broader questions about the role of for-profit foster homes, and about whether the standards of oversight for such facilities are high enough to ensure a safe and healthy environment for young people who are already, in one way or another, at risk. So there was a clear question of public interest to be explored.
There were several different people interviewed in the story.
David Roman’s parents and two of his childhood friends spoke about his life, and what he was like. They also gave their perceptions of how David was affected by his time in foster care.
Two of the other children living in the foster home gave their perspectives of life in the foster home, and of what they saw the evening David Roman was killed.
Irwin Elman, a veteran advocate of child protection (who had been Ontario’s Advocate for Children and Youth before that provincial office was closed) explained flaws that he perceives in the child welfare system, including the licencing of foster homes.
Julie Dunlop, an Ontario MPP who was then the province’s Associate Minister for Children, did not address David Roman’s case specifically, but acknowledged that there needed to be improvements in the system to ensure children receive the best care possible.
There were also off-camera quotes provided by three children’s aid societies in Ontario expressing concern about training and oversight in foster homes.
Taken together, these interviews did not add up to a conclusion about guilt or innocence in the murder trial. Nor did they add up to a definitive conclusion about the culpability of Expanding Horizons. Yet it’s clear many viewers would come away from the report with a negative impression of your company. From your perspective, it is understandable that you would feel the program was not complete enough to be aired.
However, there is no dictate in journalism that says a story - even an investigative story - can only be published or broadcast when every single question has been answered. That would be an impossible standard to meet, because there are almost always more questions. We’ve seen that play out over and over again in journalistic history, with perhaps the most famous example being Watergate in the United States. Reports build on the reports that preceded them to ultimately paint a more complete picture. Journalism - even documentary-length investigative journalism - is iterative.
In this instance, it was not clear how many weeks, months, or even years it would be before the various criminal and civil trials would conclude. I have no quarrel with CBC deciding that the significance of the issue of child welfare merited exploration, even though there would undoubtedly be questions unanswered by its investigation.
So what IS the standard for CBC journalists in such a situation? Be precise. Be clear about what is fact, what is analysis, and what is speculation. Be transparent about what facts are left unknown, and - as the JSP demands - give the people being investigated the opportunity to respond to allegations.
In this regard, Mr. McKeown’s report is largely on solid ground. For example, the various accounts of what happened are attributed to the people being interviewed. The allegations made about training and standards are also attributed properly. Consider again this passage about Mr. Calver. This time I note some key words in red:
In court documents the aspiring chef, with no background in foster care or parenting, claims his only training was a couple of days at the local library. He says he was promised there’d be no foster children with violent histories.
The qualifications and attributions in red indicated that Mr. McKeown was not pretending he knew an unvarnished truth about training and support. He was simply reporting what a key figure in the story was saying.
It is stating the obvious to say that CBC’s journalism would have benefited greatly from hearing your perspective. If you had been able to share evidence that would refute some of the allegations and inferences made by others, or if you had offered an explanation for the incorrect information on your website, the report would have been different and viewers would be better placed to draw their own conclusions about what happened.
During this review, I considered the ways that CBC tried to get your side of the story. Producers told me they were unable to secure documents through your company, nor were they allowed to see the results of the provincial investigation conducted after David Roman’s death.
So they requested an interview with both you and Carmine Perrelli, the president of Expanding Horizons, and also the deputy mayor of Richmond Hill, Ontario.
In each case, Mr. McKeown reached you by telephone and requested an interview. He followed up with emails explaining in more detail the subjects he wanted to discuss.
When neither of you agreed to speak, producers considered whether they should attempt to interview you anyway. In the JSP, this is referred to as an “Interview without Consent”:
We generally respect a person’s refusal to be interviewed. However, in the public interest we may choose to disregard the refusal, especially in investigative reporting or when a person plays a key role in an event of public interest.
In such cases, we first try to persuade the person to be interviewed. If he or she continues to refuse and we consider it essential to record his or her reaction to our questions, we may confront the person, identify ourselves as CBC journalists, and record for broadcast his or her statements without obtaining consent.
A decision to confront a person who has refused an interview will be discussed in advance with the Managing Editor, as will a decision whether to conceal the camera in such an instance. If the camera is concealed, we ask the Director before broadcasting.
We resort to this form of interview in the public interest, not simply for stylistic effect.
The producers told me that they were prepared to try to interview both you and Mr. Perrelli in this manner. But CBC managers turned down the request to interview you without consent. They did, however, approve for Mr. McKeown to go to Mr. Perrelli’s house, a decision apparently based on the notion that, as Deputy Mayor of Richmond Hill, he was a public figure.
This is how that played out in the broadcast:
(Voice of Bob McKeown): Hello, is Mr. Perrelli there please?
As for the responsibility of Expanding Horizons, we reached out repeatedly to Company President Carmine Perrelli, eventually going to his house.
(Voice of Bob McKeown): Is Mr. Perrelli around?
But to no avail. And we attempted to reach program director Frank Lo Greco on numerous occasions.
(Voice of Bob McKeown): Is Frank around please?
Lo Greco’s lawyer advised him not to speak with us. And though Perrelli is Deputy Mayor of Richmond Hill, Ontario -- David Roman’s hometown -- and though David died in his company’s care, Perrelli never got back to us either.
You told me during our discussions you thought the depiction of Mr. Perrelli here was unfair; that there had, after all, been a phone conversation between him and Mr. McKeown, and that this made it look as though he had been unresponsive.
CBC producers confirmed to me that there was a phone conversation, and provided me with a transcript. In that call, Mr. McKeown described (as he had with you) the subject matter of the interview he was requesting. There was, however, no substantive exchange about the issues at hand. Mr. Perrelli said he would have to run the idea of an interview past his lawyers before he could agree to one. Mr. McKeown then sent Mr. Perrelli a follow-up email with more information. But there was no interview, and no further response. The visit to the Perrelli home also produced no interview. With all that in mind, I consider the Fifth Estate’s description to be accurate. CBC journalists asked for an interview, and then Mr. Perrelli never got back to them.
Now, I want to be clear that neither you nor Mr. Perrelli were obliged to speak to CBC. But your choosing not to do so did not prevent CBC from reporting on the allegations against you. Producers told me that in the absence of an interview with you, they were prepared to include key points made in your statement of defence in the civil suits. But at the time of broadcast, no such statement of defence had been filed.
It became apparent to me as I reviewed this matter that The Fifth Estate followed the correct procedures, asked the right questions and adhered to the letter of the test of fairness demanded by the JSP. I do, however, have some advice for programmers that it would be better in a case such as this to take an additional step to drive home the fact that CBC had treated you and Expanding Horizons fairly. That step is a line stating explicitly either that the company had not yet filed its statement of defence, or that the allegations being made by Mr. Calver and by the Romans had not yet been tested in court. I note that there was such a line in an online article published the same day on CBC’s website. It would have been desirable to hear that line on television, as well, to remind viewers that the entirety of the story was not yet known.
On the question of how CBC reported the details of your website, and in particular your concern that it did not indicate that your wife did have credentials in another country and under her maiden name - I am sorry to say that I found that beside the point. The relevance of the statement “She’s listed as the company’s registered behaviour consultant, but we could find no professional authority in Ontario responsible for registering behaviour consultants” was not that it might question your spouse’s abilities. Rather, it was to point out that the website promoted a designation that did not exist in Ontario.
Considering all of the above, I have concluded that there was no violation of journalistic standards by The Fifth Estate. There were more than enough facts presented, and more than enough credible viewpoints expressed, to put this story and the issues it raised into the realm of public discourse.
Sincerely, Jack Nagler CBC Ombudsman