A mother who pleaded guilty to criminal negligence causing death in her son’s drowning death in the Grand River in Ontario in 2018 has been given a two-year conditional sentence during a virtual hearing Tuesday.
Michelle Hanson, 38, was charged after three-year-old Kaden Young died during heavy flooding on Feb. 21, 2018, near Hanson’s then home west of Orangeville, about 60 kilometres northwest of Toronto. She pleaded guilty in November.
She appeared via video from Stephenville, N.L., where she moved in December 2020, the sentencing hearing was told.
Hanson will spend the first 18 months of her conditional sentence under house arrest. She’ll only be allowed to leave her home for medical emergencies or appointments, employment or with written permission from the conditional sentence supervisor. She is also permitted to leave the house on Mondays between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. to get the “necessities of life.”
For the last six months of the sentence, Hanson will be able to leave her home, but has a curfew between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. daily.
She cannot drive during the next two years. As well, she must attend grief and addictions counselling sessions.
After the two years, Hanson will be on probation for one year, during which time she will need to regularly check in with a probation officer, and continue to attend grief and addictions counselling.
She also will not be allowed to drive for the three years after her conditional sentence, for a total nationwide driving ban of five years.
Judge considered guilty plea in sentencing
During sentencing on Tuesday, Justice Giselle Miller said Hanson should be given credit for pleading guilty to her son’s death.
“I understand that it took Ms. Hanson quite some time to come to accept her responsibility in her son’s death, but she has done so. She is given credit for accepting that responsibility and for her expression of remorse in doing so.”
The court heard Tuesday that just after midnight on Feb. 21, 2018, Hanson drove with her son while under the influence of alcohol. Hanson had put her son, who was having trouble sleeping, in the van and started to drive to a convenience store in the nearby town of Grand Valley.
Earlier in the day, road closure barriers had been put up on 10th Line of Amaranth near Hanson’s home because of rising waters in the Grand River and the potential for flooding. That night, Hanson drove around the barrier and into a flooded section of the roadway. The van was pulled into the river by the strong current.
Kaden was in his car seat when the van went into the river. Hanson was able to get him out of the car seat and the van, but lost grip of him as they were swept down river.
At 12:52 a.m. ET that day, police responded to a 911 call that a vehicle had entered the Grand River in Amaranth, west of Orangeville.
Hanson was rescued from the frigid waters by firefighters.
Paramedics who helped Hanson detected an odour of alcohol, the statement said. She was taken to hospital, where a doctor found she was suffering from hypothermia and other minor injuries.
In the weeks that followed, hundreds of people searched for the child along the banks of the Grand River. His body was recovered two months later.
In July 2019, Hanson was ordered to stand trial. Hanson’s trial was delayed several times due to COVID-19 restrictions in courtrooms, change of venue requests and Hanson retaining a new lawyer.
Hanson had faced a charge of impaired driving causing death, but it was dropped as part of the plea agreement between the Crown and Hanson’s lawyer.
Dad says ‘Kaden would want me to be happy’
Crown attorney Danielle Garbatay submitted to the court four victim impact statements from family members, but only read one — from Cameron Young, Kaden’s father — into the court record.
Garbatay read how Cameron’s life changed when he received the call that Hanson’s van was in the river and there was no sign of Kaden.
“I couldn’t just sit back and wait, so for the next 59 days with the help and support of my family, friends and hundreds of volunteers, we continued looking for my son. Those days were exhausting, emotionally and physically draining,” Young’s statement said.
On April 21, 2018, he received a call from police that a child’s body had been found near the Belwood bridge.
“Identifying my son Kaden’s tiny, lifeless body that day is something no parent should ever have to do,” Young’s statement said.
He said he slept poorly after that, and had horrible dreams and terrible flashbacks. Even today, Young wrote, when he drives over a bridge or near a river, the images of Kaden’s body “flood back into my mind and I can’t shake them.”
He was diagnosed with depression and anxiety, but said he has focused on his other children and family to help him.
“I wake up every morning and remind myself: Kaden would want me to be happy, us to be happy. He would want me to enjoy life just like we used to before he was so tragically taken from me,” the statement said.
Garbatay said the other victim impact statements from grandparents and an aunt spoke about the loss of the “smiling three-year-old” and the impact it has had on them.
“His loss cannot be quantified,” Garbatay said.
Mother ‘not a demon,’ lawyer says
Mattson said the victim impact statements reflected how Hanson herself felt about the death of her own son.
“We can all imagine how the mother feels if that’s how the other people feel,” he said.
He said she had an unsettled childhood and a prior to having children, she was in a relationship that introduced her to drugs. Today, Mattson said, Hanson is working to improve herself. She has moved into a stable home — her move to Newfoundland was revealed during Tuesday’s sentencing hearing — and is working with a counsellor and a doctor to help her with her addictions.
He said her long-term goals include staying sober so she can see her other child.
“She’s a product of some poor choices … she made some poor choices, but she’s not a demon. She’s doing everything she can to get herself on the right track,” Mattson said.
Mattson said Hanson told him she hopes people who helped to look for Kaden, including her former partner, don’t “harden their hearts” because of her actions that night.
“What those people did, to look for the child, was very heartwarming,” Mattson said. “It would be a terrible thing if those people changed their demeanour because of this.”
Hanson wore a black shirt and had her blond hair pulled back into a ponytail for the virtual court appearance. She became emotional at times when the details of the night Kaden went missing were read into the court record. When offered a chance to speak, she said she was happy with what her lawyer had said and offered no further comment.
In handing down the sentence, Miller said that while it must deter others from similar actions, she also had to consider that Hanson pleaded guilty, which meant people did not have to testify in a trial, and Hanson has taken steps to address her grief and addictions.
“No penalty the court could impose will ever bring Kaden back or lessen the anguish felt by those close to him because of his death and its circumstances,” Miller said.
“No penalty imposed by this court will ever have the effect of punishing Michelle Hanson more than she has punished herself for her reckless actions and no doubt will continue to punish herself for the rest of her life.”