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Family of toddler found dead at small-town Ont. daycare awaits answers one year later

Warning: Readers may find content in this article disturbing.

“You should be here.”

The message, printed on a coloured poster paper and held high by supporters in Cobourg, Ont. on Saturday, is to two-year-old Vienna Irwin, found dead at a small-town Ontario daycare last spring.

At the rally, held in the Irwins’ hometown, community members marked a year since Vienna’s death and highlighted a lack of answers in a police investigation now stretching into its second year.

The event saw a sea of butterflies transform the town’s Division and Elgin intersection. Imagery that has come to symbolize Vienna’s story in Northumberland County, the butterflies adorned posters, tee-shirts, lawn signs, and hats of those who came to mourn the girl.

A rally was held in memory of two-year-old Vienna Irwin in Cobourg, Ont. on Saturday, marking the one-year anniversary of the toddler’s death at a small-town Ontario daycare. (CTV News Toronto)

Vienna was first reported missing from Watch Me Grow Daycare in Baltimore, Ont. on May 25, 2023. Her mother, Claire Irwin, had arrived at the facility, just a short drive north over the 401, at around around 5:20 p.m.

When it was realized Vienna was gone, emergency crews, parents and neighbours began to scour the area. Not long after, she was found at the same address without vital signs and rushed to hospital, but was later pronounced dead. 

She was 2.

Vienna Irwin can be seen above. (Claire Irwin/Instagram)

The subsequent investigation, overseen by the Ontario Provincial Police’s Criminal Investigation Branch, has offered no public updates since. As of Saturday, the Irwins are no closer to understanding what happened to Vienna that day.

At the rally, supporters touched on that lack of answers.

“Why was Vienna’s mom the first to call 911?” read one sign held by a supporter. “Her family needs answers,” said another. “There are too many holes for it to have been an accident,” a third read.

On Monday, investigators with the OPP told CTV News Toronto that they could not answer repeated questions regarding the investigation to protect its integrity.

“We understand the devastation of this tragedy and value the concerns raised by the community. Sharing information at the time may affect the investigation’s integrity. We’d like to reassure the community that the investigation is ongoing,” they said in a statement released to the public days later.

The same statement was released publicly by police on Friday, marking their first communication about the case since its initial media release a year ago.

At the centre of the call for answers is Claire and Clay Irwin, Vienna’s parents. The last year has been filled with grief and uncertainty for the Irwins.

Vienna was “their world,” Claire told CTV News Toronto in the family’s first public statement to the media since the loss. “We miss her every minute of every day.”

The Irwins’ grief has been made more difficult not only by a lack of information but seemingly, by a mistake made in initial reports from the day of Vienna’s death. On the day, both local and then international media described a toddler who had “wandered” from the property and was later found in an open well. It’s an inaccurate account, according to the family — one first made over the police scanner, that was picked up by media and circulated worldwide.

They have maintained that she was pulled from a closed septic tank within the facility’s play area.

“The grief we feel over losing Vienna is compounded by the trauma of knowing [where] she was found,” Claire said.

Clay and Claire Irwin can be seen above with Vienna. (Instagram)

It’s a claim police have not confirmed, causing a discrepancy Vienna’s loved ones say have forced them to circulate the truth themselves.

“It’s been a nightmare that doesn’t end when you wake up,” Heather Field, a close family friend of the Irwins, told CTV News Toronto.

While Field and Claire have long known one another, the two became close after becoming pregnant at the same time. 

“There are just no words to explain the feeling of watching who is like your family lose their child, and then, to go home to my own daughter, who is doing all the things Vienna should be, it’s just really hard to find joy,” Field said.

The lack of updates from police in the year since – along with discrepancies within the day-of reporting – has made an already devastating experience that much more challenging, she explained. 

“That misinformation in the beginning shaped a narrative that, almost a year later, we’re still trying to correct – because it gives the impression that no one played a role in this, […] but babies don’t just end up in septic tanks.”

In the absence of information, Claire and her network started the hashtag #JusticeForVienna. Through the online movement, Claire works to keep Vienna’s memory alive, while sharing her experience with child loss and grief, to an audience of nearly 15,000 followers.

On several occasions, Claire has reminded her followers that the investigation into Vienna’s death remains an ongoing, criminal probe.

“I will say this,” one such post from November reads. “Vienna’s death is still an ACTIVE criminal investigation. I hear at least once a week that someone heard that this is all over, case closed, just an accident. FALSE.”

“I made a promise to her that I would not stop until we have the answers,” she wrote in another.

It was a promise echoed by those who held signs on the side of the road in the rain on Saturday.

“We will not stop sharing Vienna’s story,” one supporter said. “Not until the family has the answers they deserve.”

Until then, all the Irwins – and the network of supporters behind them – can do is wait. 

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