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Family of toddler found dead at small-town Ont. daycare no closer to answers after year of investigation

“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 here 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, without vital signs, on the property. She was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

She was 2.

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

Ontario Provincial Police immediately launched an investigation, overseen by its Criminal Investigation Branch, following the discovery of Vienna’s body. As of Saturday, a year of that investigation has brought the Irwins and their community no closer to answers.

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

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

When reached for comment, investigators told CTV News Toronto they could not answer repeated questions regarding the investigation in order 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,” police said.

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.

A poster reads ‘Justice for Vienna’ at a rally held for the toddler in Cobourg on May 25, 2024. (CTV News Toronto)

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 grief of child loss has been made more difficult not only by a lack of information, but by a mistake. In the wake of Vienna’s death, both local and international media reported the girl had “wandered” from the property and was later found in an open well, an error those present said was first made in a description over the police scanner.

Her family and loved ones, however, have maintained she was found in 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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