Human Rights

Woodlands probe finds evidence of systemic abusespace
Canadian Press Friday, July 26  Online Edition, Posted at 6:49 PM EST

Victoria A code of silence among employees and a skewed view of appropriate discipline fostered a breeding ground for physical and sexual abuse at an institution for the mentally handicapped, a government-commissioned report has found.

Former B.C. ombudsman Dulcie McCallum said she found evidence of systemic abuse at Woodlands, an institution near Vancouver that operated for more than 100 years.

"Details of the physical abuse found in the records include hitting, kicking, smacking, slapping, striking, restraining, isolating, grabbing by the hair or limbs, dragging, pushing onto table, kicking and shoving, very cold showers and very hot baths resulting in burns to the skin, verbal abuse including swearing, bullying and belittling, inappropriate conduct such as extended isolation, wearing shackles and a belt-leash with documented evidence of the injuries including bruising, scratches, broken limbs, black eyes, and swollen face," said the report.

Gordon Hogg, children and family development minister, said Friday the government deeply regrets the pain experienced by former Woodlands residents and will work to bring closure and healing to everyone involved.

Ms. McCallum studied files dating from 1950 to 1996, uncovering what she believes was a code of silence at Woodlands that allowed some workers to physically and sexually abuse residents with little fear of punishment. "The bulk of evidence that was eventually found to be highly probative was located in garbage bags destined for destruction shortly before this review began in April 2000," her report says.

The B.C. Association for Community Living said the report confirms what people in their movement have known for years: children and adults at Woodlands and other B.C. institutions were abused. "When vulnerable people are placed in environments where they are isolated, powerless and seen as 'less than' full citizens, then it is easy for those in a care-giving role to abuse their power and tolerate abusive behaviour in others," president Claudia Semaniuk said.

Woodlands opened in New Westminster in 1878 as the Provincial Asylum for the Insane. It closed in 1996. The government estimates 1,700 people who were Woodlands residents from 1969 to 1996 are still alive. The report did not reveal the identities of residents who suffered physical or sexual abuse. "The sexual abuse included assault, intercourse and in the result, injuries and in a few cases, a pregnancy," the report says. Ms. McCallum recommended a continuing government review that includes discussions on compensation and an opportunity for people affected to come forward.

A statement from Mr. Hogg's ministry said the government wants to move forward quickly to resolve cases where mistreatment has been alleged. There was no mention of compensation.

Ms. McCallum said the institution had a strongly worded policy against abuse, but it did little to protect residents who were often caught between the toxic environment that existed between employees and management at Woodlands. "The enforcement mechanism to manage allegations of abusive behaviour was solely in the context of employee discipline, suspension and dismissal and therefore was focused on a combative approach between management and staff rather than any attention being given to protecting residents through prevention of, or recovery from, harm," she said. Few cases were reviewed externally by police or other agencies, she said.

Deaths at Woodlands were poorly tracked by outside agencies, Ms. McCallum's report says. The coroner or medical examiner was notified in some deaths, but in most cases autopsies were not done, the report adds. "Frequently brains of the deceased were transported to the University of B.C. for research but for study that appears to be unrelated to the death," the report reads.

Ms. McCallum said she found examples of unexpected deaths under questionable circumstances. The report does not include an estimate of how many people died at Woodlands. A graveyard at Woodlands was dismantled and the headstones were used to construct an outdoor section of stairs and patio, the report says. The actual grave sites were not disturbed but people walk across them. "Why this was allowed to happen is not clear," the report says. "Government should be alerted to the fact that for many people this dismantling of graves is indicative of the lack of respectful treatment afforded the residents while alive."