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A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

When The Place Supposed to Help Kids Hurts Them

Dulcie McCallum on institutional abuse at Woodlands

Jake Adrian

Web-only article from "Trauma and Victimization" issue of Visions Journal, 2007, 3 (3)

From 1950 to 1996, the government-run Woodlands School was supposed to be a safe haven for BC’s vulnerable children—children with developmental disabilities and mental and behavioural disorders. As has been documented, however, it was anything but.

In the spring of 2000, the BC government commissioned Dulcie McCallum, a former provincial ombudsman, to look into allegations of abuse at the residential facility. Her report, The Need to Know, was released to the public in 2002.1 Jake Adrian spoke to Dulcie McCallum at the end of November 2006. He reached her by phone at her home in Nova Scotia.

Q: Can you describe what you found when you investigated Woodlands for your report?

DM: My task was to simply look at the records of the hospital, so I arbitrarily chose a number of years—1975 to 1992—and began looking at the deaths and critical incidents, to try and locate if those events took place. It led me to the personnel files, because that’s where it came to be documented when someone had been hurt. Then I went to the resident’s files and tried to locate any incidents there, or any information or evidence that would substantiate what I found in the personnel files.

Not once did I find an actual critical incidence file in that resident’s file. But I did find consistently that when it had been reported as a personnel matter, the harm done to a resident had been documented. So, if a resident’s leg had been broken or they’d been burnt in a hot bath, that would all be documented in the nursing notes and how it was treated as an injury. The only link was to the personnel file.

That occurred enough times that I concluded there had been the opportunity for abuse to occur because of the institutional setting. That abuse had, in fact, occurred to the extent to be able to conclude that there was evidence of systematic abuse.

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, belittling, inappropriate conduct such as extended isolation, wearing shackles and a belt-leash with documented evidence of the injuries including bruises, scratches, broken limbs, black eyes and swollen face. The sexual abuse included assault, intercourse and, as a result, injuries and, in a few cases, pregnancy.

Q: Why wasn’t it reported?

DM: The major finding I documented was the code of silence among the staff. There was an abuse policy in place and there was a so-called policy to investigate. But there didn’t seem to be any attempt to actually proactively prevent abuse. And although a parent group had come forward with a policy around abuse, I couldn’t find any evidence of safeguards—no reporting to police; no reporting to parents.

There was also quite a bit of documentation about discrediting the extent to which residents suffered harm compared to the way other, non-labelled, people did. Staff assumed they [the residents] weren’t smart enough to appreciate the trauma of being kicked, slapped or belittled.

In order to control behaviour, staff used techniques that we now know to be punishing and cruel. Sending someone to isolation because they dropped their peas, for example, was how institutions treated people.

Q: What recommendations did you make based on your findings?

DM: I recommended that there be a second-phase investigation that would allow people to tell their stories. Then, if there was evidence that people had been individually insulted, there be some reparation for the harm done. We’ve seen that, in residential schools such as in Newfoundland at Mount Cashel orphanage, what really becomes important is that people have a chance to tell their story, to be believed and apologized to.

Q: How is this situation at Woodlands part of a larger history of injustices elsewhere?

DM: The Law Commission of Canada did a huge report on institutional sexual, physical and emotional abuse in Canada.2 It reviewed all the cases that had been heard in court up until then.

What you see in every group the law has ever disenfranchised, whether it be First Nations people who were not considered citizens and not allowed to vote, Chinese Canadians, women, people labelled disabled (including people with mental illness or kids who were deaf)—anybody for whom we had created a law making them second-class citizens—is that we create a subcategory of people, and they are the ones that are abused. So, because we take away all their rights, including their right to be safe from harm, those are the people that get hurt.

The law can play a big part in this once it is upgraded. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms3and UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities4 are ways to do that. The similarity is profound, for me, between the Jericho School for the Deaf, the Doukabors and Woodlands. I think we can make some assumptions that institutions that warehouse people based on a demeaning label, including institutions that care for people with mental illness, can be prone to certain consequences.

Q: What can service providers, patients and family members do today to protect people’s rights when they are in tertiary care facilities?

DM: I think visitations are important. People need a chance to have a private conversation, to report anything when they leave a facility or if they change facilities, and to have a family-member council in place at these facilities. In the case of children, everybody is under a duty to report abuse. It is not for them to decide if the abuse has occurred; that’s for investigators—social workers and police—to determine. I think that if people did that more—acted on their intuition or what they see and don’t try to turn into judge and jury on their own—people would be safer.

To date, no one has ever been charged for the abuse documented. The government has largely dismissed the findings in McCallum’s report and has refused to pursue the second-stage investigation she recommended. A class-action lawsuit has been launched on behalf of the estimated 1,500 survivors. It is scheduled to be heard in court sometime in 2007.

About the author
Jake was a mental health counsellor for 10 years, working with children and youth living in institutions or on the street. He has recently switched careers to communications
  1. McCallum, D. (2002). The need to know: Administrative review of Woodlands School. Victoria, BC: Ministry of Children and Family Development.

  2. Law Commission of Canada. (2000). Restoring dignity: Responding to child abuse in Canadian institutions. Ottawa, ON: Minister of Public Works and Government Services. Note: A federal government decision on September 25, 2006, cut funding to the Law Commission of Canada.

  3. Constitution Act, 1982, [en. by the Canada Act 1982 (UK), c.11, s.1], pt. I (Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

  4. United Nations. (2006). Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.


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