A new report from an ongoing public inquiry into decades of abuse at a Halifax-area orphanage says a fragmented system of care wasn’t equipped to address the needs of children who were vulnerable.
The interim report, released Friday by the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry, says the story of the home illustrates a social system that works in isolation.
“Across the many sessions of the inquiry, participants acknowledged that social systems failed to provide the support and care that children and young people in the home required and deserved,” says the report.
“This included the failure to properly protect former residents and respond to experiences of abuse and neglect. They recognized that current systems and structures remain ill-equipped to fully respond to people’s needs.”
Inquiry co-chairwoman Pamela Williams , who is chief judge of the provincial and family courts, said people’s experiences that pointed to shortcomings within the system consistently emerged as the inquiry conducted its work over the past three years.
“There is an absolute need to build stronger trusting relationships as we move forward and make better and lasting changes for the future,” she said.
The report also says the system’s inability to connect with the black community complicated a relationship that was already overlaid with overt and systemic racism.
The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children opened in 1921 and was initially seen as a “significant achievement” by the African Nova Scotian Community. The institution looked after children who weren’t accepted by the Protestant and Roman Catholic orphanages of the time.
More than 3,000 people turned out to celebrate the opening of a home that would eventually see more than 1,000 children live there over its lifespan.
“This is not a simple story of bad individuals or bad intentions,” said Jennifer Llewellyn, a member of the inquiry council and a professor at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law.
“This home was created out of an incredible act of care, and yet resulted in a failure of care for those who lived there,” said Llewellyn.
The report said economic disparity that limited opportunities in the African Nova Scotian community also played a role in what happened at the home.
During its early period, many female staff took jobs to support their families, placing them in a vulnerable position “were they to lose their income by reporting abuse,” the report says. Economic inequality also led to children being placed in the home by families who couldn’t afford to raise them.
Inquiry co-chairman Tony Smith, a former resident of the home, said overt racism also effected how the system dealt with children like him.
As a “fair complected kid,” Smith said he went to the home at the age of five and was told after a few weeks that he was white, not black.
“So they put me into a white orphanage and after being there for a few weeks they said you’re not white, you’re black, and you have to go back to a colored home,” he said. “It was very clear that racism played a major role.”
A report released by the inquiry in January also pointed to a culture of silence and shame that contributed to the abuse at the home.
Friday’s interim report precedes the inquiry’s final report, which is expected in March. That report is expected to focus on planning and action for the current care system.
The restorative inquiry is made up of former residents of the orphanage, community members and the provincial government. Launched in late 2015, it has a mandate to examine the experiences of former residents and systemic discrimination and racism throughout the province.
Premier Stephen McNeil issued a formal apology to the residents of the orphanage in 2014 for physical, psychological, and sexual abuse up until the 1980s.
Class action lawsuits against the home and the province ended in settlements totalling $34 million.