Family struggling to make sense of four-year-old girl's sudden death

An Ontario family says it is struggling to make sense of the sudden death of their four-year-old daughter, whose body was found alongside her father's at the bottom of an escarpment west of Toronto.

Keira Kagan and her father, Robin Brown, went missing Sunday afternoon after they went hiking in Rattlesnake Point Conservation Area in Milton, Ont. Their disappearance triggered a massive search that ended hours later when their bodies were found.

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Halton regional police have said the pair's injuries were consistent with a fall, and their deaths are not considered homicides "at this point."

But the girl's stepfather, Philip Viater, says he and his wife, Jennifer Kagan, believe the deaths were a murder-suicide that took place in the middle of a lengthy custody battle.

"We're not doing well," Viater said through tears. "We go through a cycle of stages between sadness, confusion, anger, helplessness."

The custody dispute over Keira has been difficult, Viater said early Tuesday, as he and his wife were getting ready to go to the coroner's office to view Keira's body.

"We've been traumatized by this man for three years."

He said they were incredulous about the police theory that father and daughter had been hiking.

"Keira's never been hiking in her life to the best of our knowledge," he said. "When you take Keira out for Halloween, she trips 20 times going down the street. She asks us to carry her all the time."

Jennifer Kagan had brought forward an urgent motion on Jan. 28 seeking a court order to suspend Brown's access to Keira or give him only supervised access.

Brown had Keira on alternating weekends, including this past weekend, according to court documents.

The judge said the motion was "serious," but not urgent because Jewish Family and Child Services — a children’s aid society for the Jewish community in Toronto and York Region — was investigating and had "eyes and ears on the ground." The group was expected to complete a report on the case before the next court hearing set for Feb. 20, court documents said.

Jennifer Kagan, a doctor, and Robin Brown, an engineer, got married in 2013 and separated three years later, after which Kagan left the couple's home in Burlington, Ont., and moved in with her parents in Thornhill, Ont.

"Each party has made allegations against the other as to verbal, emotional and sexual abuse," Justice Douglas Gray said in his 2018 decision, following an 11-day trial in the fall of 2017.

The judge noted there was "some confirmation" about one incident in which Brown became enraged when one of their dogs picked up a mouse in the backyard and then he shoved the mouse into Kagan's mouth. He later said he had no recollection of the incident.

A court-appointed assessor, Dr. Peter Sutton, a psychiatrist with 30 years' experience, was satisfied the incident occurred.

Sutton said he spent 230 hours on the case, the second-longest of his career, court documents said.

"Throughout the visit Mr. Brown was attentive to and engaged with Keira, aware of her whereabouts and activities, gentle and encouraging, tactful in managing limit setting and appropriately aware of safety concerns," the judge said of Sutton's testimony.

But the judge also noted Brown's propensity to lie.

Kagan and Brown fought over whether their daughter was allergic to milk. A gastroenterologist opined that it was unlikely the girl was allergic, but might have a mild aversion.

After an appointment with the gastroenterologist on May 31, 2016, Brown "absconded with Keira. He refused to return Keira to the respondent’s care unless she signed an agreement providing for an equal parenting schedule," the documents said.

The judge also found that Brown had lied to Kagan, her mother and his employer about earning a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"In this case, the relationship between the parties is so toxic that any form of joint parenting, including parallel parenting, would be doomed to failure, and would only exacerbate the conflict," Justice Gray wrote.

The judge noted he was not concerned about Keira's safety, but did award Kagan sole decision-making authority about the child's upbringing provided she sought input — in writing — from Brown before making major decisions.

The judge granted Brown greater access to Keira, including overnight and weekend visits. Kagan appealed that portion of the decision, but lost. Other court decisions over time decreased Brown's access to his daughter.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2020.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Brown appealed the original decision and lost.

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