Several years back, Annie and her now-ex-husband took their 15-year-old son Nick to Highland Shores Children’s Aid Society, hoping to get him help. But almost a year after his death, they feel Nick’s time in the Belleville, Ont.-area Children’s Aid Society group home was the spark that led to a violent criminal streak and his eventual suicide.
“Nick was just battling a lot of things with drugs and alcohol,” Annie said. “He tried his best to live a good life. In his final letter to me, he (said he) was heading down a life he didn’t want.”
A Global News investigation has uncovered stories from the Children’s Aid group home where Nick lived for a short time in 2012 and 2013, where already vulnerable teenage boys were allegedly taking and selling drugs, stealing from their classmates and using money from those exploits to buy tattoos, drugs and alcohol — and all of this was allegedly encouraged by one employee.
(Both Annie and Nick’s names have been changed to protect Nick’s identity. Nick’s father would not consent to an interview.)
In late January 2019, 48-year-old Sandra Forcier, a former supervisor of the youth home on Willett Road in Belleville, Ont., was charged with the historic sexual assault of two underage boys. Forcier’s case is still before the court, and a trial date has yet to be set.
None of the allegations made against Forcier have been proven in court. Edward Kafka, a lawyer for Forcier, refused to comment for this story.
“There shall be no comment from Ms. Forcier or this office in relation to this investigation. I trust I have made our position crystal clear on this issue,” he said in an email.
Nick was not one of the underage boys she is accused of assaulting, but those close to him say that it was his relationship with Forcier that ruined his life.
Although Highland Shores denies any wrongdoing, Facebook messages allegedly sent between Forcier and Nick — and seen by Global News — suggest an unhealthy relationship may have blossomed between Forcier and Nick, then 15 years old, while both were at the Children’s Aid-run facility.
Nick’s family and employees of the Children’s Aid Society claim Highland Shores investigated Forcier’s alleged relationships with the boys in her care. The facility closed soon after the allegations against her were brought forward.
While Annie says her son never claimed to have had a sexual relationship with Forcier, she is sure that her son was corrupted while under Forcier’s supervision.
“I definitely know Nick’s time around Sandy Forcier, he went down a dark road, darker than I ever, ever saw,” she said.
The police investigation into Forcier began when officers received a complaint in June 2018, the same month Nick died by suicide.
During the investigation, they say they found another boy who had allegedly been abused.
The assaults, police say, happened in 2012 and 2013. Police wouldn’t confirm if the complainants were wards of the Children’s Aid Society, but it was in that same time frame, from April 2012 to April 2013, that Forcier supervised the all-male group home where Nick stayed.
Det. Sgt. Pat Kellar, the Belleville police officer leading the investigation against Forcier, said: “I can tell you that she was in a position of authority and trust in relation to the victims.”
In the end, if what Nick said about the Children’s Aid group home was true, the system that his parents expected to help him simply failed.
“He was moved from his home into somewhere where he should have got the help. He learned how to steal, he learned how to do drugs, he never came out of that,” Annie said.
Stealing, drugs and alcohol use alleged at a Children’s Aid group home
Jaine Thompson, who worked as head of special education at the school Nick attended, had a soft spot for him, recalling him as kind and quiet.
“Nick was a gentle giant,” Thompson said. “He thought the world of his mom.”
Thompson knew about his temper and his run-ins with police, but that wasn’t the kid she saw at school.
“Never ever once did I think that Nick would be a threat. He would do the right thing,” she said.
But as Nick got older, the other side of him that Thompson never saw was the perpetrator of violent robberies, assaults and, in one case, attempted arson.
Annie claims that before Nick met Forcier, he was troubled but never in trouble with the law. He ended up at the group home because of his history of abuse.
“He disclosed to me, within our home, he had been sexually abused by a relative and he blamed us,” Annie said.
Nick had lost trust in his parents so Annie chose to admit him to the group home in October 2012.
“In order to move him forward and get him past that blame, we wanted him with other males in a supportive system,” Annie said.
Tami Callahan, executive director of Highland Shores, says the now-closed facility once held up to eight boys at a time.
“Often, youth were there for a period of time to achieve goals so that they could live in a foster home or advance to an independent living situation.”
Annie says during Nick’s four- to five-month period in the Belleville facility, he got nine tattoos.
“All of them through Sandy,” Annie said. “He went in there. Within a month of being in there, he had a tattoo.”
Thompson, who worked with Nick about a year after he left the group home when he transferred to her high school, also said it was her understanding that Forcier was encouraging Nick to get tattoos.
“He said to me that he had gotten most of those tattoos when he was in the group home — that Sandy would drive him to his appointments and then come back and pick him up afterwards,” she said.
Annie says that while in the Highland Shores facility, Nick stopped attending classes and started to steal from his classmates. She claims this was all facilitated by Forcier.
“He would have to steal so much stuff from school, run out to her car at lunchtime, and this is when the police were involved and Nick got expelled,” she said.
The school did not press charges, but Nick was forced to transfer to Thompson’s school.
“He explained to me that he and the other boys and Sandy would steal things and sell them and use that money to buy drugs and alcohol and, in some cases, his tattoos,” Thompson said.
Not only was Nick buying drugs on his own, both Thompson and Annie claim Forcier was bringing drugs into the group home and taking the boys out of the facility to do and buy drugs.
Annie remembers having to pick Nick up, sometimes in the middle of the night, from “drug houses” where she claimed Forcier would leave him.
“We were picking our son up at 2 a.m. in the morning because he was being dropped off in this neighbourhood I didn’t even know existed, let alone fearful going in and grabbing my 15-year-old son out of there,” she said.
When asked what type of drugs Nick was doing, Annie said she knew about him using marijuana and drinking alcohol but didn’t know of any other drugs. Thompson was told a bit more.
“He told me about cocaine at the group home. He told me about cocaine and he told me about alcohol,” said Thompson. “I can tell you it certainly gave Nick an appetite for drugs, and drugs turned out to be Nick’s biggest nemesis.”
WATCH: Woman charged with sexual exploitation worked at Children’s Aid at time of alleged offences
Annie has kept printouts of a Facebook conversation between Nick and Forcier she claims they had during his stay at the group home.
“Let me help you. I’m done school…do you want me to come get you and talk somewhere private,” the message supposedly sent from Forcier says to Nick.
After those messages, a message that appears to be from Forcier’s account instructs Nick to change his Facebook password since his parents had access to his account.
“Just in case hun,” the message finishes and then gives him two phone numbers.
After a couple weeks of what seemed like chaos, Annie says she and her husband went to Highland Shores management with their concerns about Forcier. It was this, Annie says, that launched an internal investigation at Highland Shores into Forcier’s behaviour.
Callahan wouldn’t confirm if an investigation took place, saying she couldn’t discuss personnel issues.
But in general, Callahan said that in every situation where allegations are made against workers, if criminal acts were suspected, police would be called. She also said if a worker was accused of abusing a child, the Children’s Aid Society in question would bring in a different Children’s Aid Society to investigate the allegation.
If the investigation was internal, then Callahan said senior managers, or sometimes the staff person’s direct supervisor, would conduct the investigation along with human resources.
Thompson, who got to know Nick’s family well, said she is fairly confident an investigation took place.
“They did have the investigation. Nick’s parents have shared a bit of that with me,” Thompson said. She pointed to Nick’s tattoo removal process as an indication that Highland Shores may have been trying to correct actions taken at the group home.
“I find that interesting. I’m thinking that they are paying for the removal of the tattoos because he got the tattoos while he was in their care,” Thompson said.
Annie also claimed that Highland Shores was funding Nick’s tattoo removals.
“We took him to a place in Ottawa, which the CAS paid (for) — Laserderm in Ottawa. It’s a physician in Ottawa, (a) dermatologist that removes tattoos. The CAS was billed directly,” she said.
Annie says Highland Shores paid for five of the nine tattoos to be removed because Nick wanted to keep the other four.
Laserderm would not comment for this story due to privacy reasons.
When asked if Highland Shores paid for Nick’s tattoo removal process, Callahan wouldn’t comment on the specific situation. She admitted tattoo removals are not uncommon for older wards and that they often pay for tattoo removals, just as a parent would.
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All in all, if there was an investigation, nothing much came of it, Annie said.
“They did their investigation. They believed everything; it’s just there was no solid evidence to fire her,” she said.
Nick left the Willett Road facility and eventually went back to school, where he started working with Thompson.
One day in January 2015, Nick came into Thompson’s office troubled about something.
“He said: ‘I just got these messages and I don’t know what to think and I don’t know what to do,’” Thompson recalled.
Thompson kept printouts of Facebook messages, which she has provided to Global News. They appear to be three consecutive Facebook messages sent from Forcier to Nick just before midnight on Dec. 19, 2014.
One message that appears to come from Forcier tells Nick she had been dreaming of him lately.
The message went on to say she had quit Highland Shores and that she had attempted suicide and been in the psych ward six times that year. In the message allegedly from Forcier, she appears to tell him about her plans to go to rehabilitation for her addiction to amphetamines and for post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the printouts provided by Thompson, Nick never responds. He would have been around 16 at the time.
Thompson also kept notes from the meeting she had with Nick about the Facebook messages, which she provided to Global News. In those notes, Thompson was already planning how to act.
“I was very concerned because the content of them was totally inappropriate for a person in a position of trust. I already had some pretty significant concerns about Sandy and I said: ‘Nick, we need to share these with CAS and we need to speak to your lawyer,’” Thompson said.
Thompson says she took the messages to Nick’s former caseworker, Christie Nazzer, who did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
“Nothing came of that,” Thompson said.
Is child protection social work? Not necessarily at Children’s Aid Societies
Callahan would not comment about whether Highland Shores was aware of the messages. She said she would be very concerned to hear a staff member was contacting a youth past their term of employment.
As for any type of response from a Children’s Aid Society to such a situation, Callahan said there wasn’t much they could do.
Since Forcier was no longer an employee, they couldn’t investigate, and Callahan said it would be impossible to warn other employers since Children’s Aid can only divulge information about past employees through references or allegations filed with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers.
Forcier, who worked as a child protection worker for over a decade with Children’s Aid, is not registered with the college.
That’s not really surprising since only 10 per cent of Children’s Aid Society workers are registered.
According to a letter from the college addressed to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, Children’s Aid Societies have been skirting regulation and oversight by hiring social workers under a different name.
It is illegal in Ontario to work as a social worker or a social service worker and not be registered with the college, but Children’s Aid workers, most of whom are required to have education as social workers, are hired as “child protection workers,” which means they do not have to register with the college.
“When their CAS worker has a social work degree and performs the services of a social worker, does that child, youth or family not have a reasonable expectation that that person actually should be a ‘social worker,’ a regulated professional under the laws of Ontario,” the letter from the College reads.
This registration ensures each child protection worker has the appropriate educational requirements and holds individual members accountable to a code of ethics and standards of practice.
Most importantly, if a complaint is filed against an individual, registration allows for complaints or a resulting disciplinary measure to follow the worker past their current employer.
Forcier was put on leave from Highland Shores in April 2013 until she left on her own accord in December 2013. Callahan confirmed as much but would not give any details as to why she was put on leave or why she resigned.
According to Forcier’s LinkedIn page, in July 2013 — presumably while she was on leave at Highland Shores Children’s Aid — she began a job as a “thrive counsellor” at Belleville Quinte West Community Health Centre, counselling women dealing with opioid addictions. Although she was still employed at the health centre when her charges came out, executive director Sheila Braidek says Forcier has been on leave from that position for an extended period of time. Braidek would not comment beyond that.
Forcier’s LinkedIn page also lists Loyalist College as an employer from 2012 to the present time. Kerry Lorimer, communications officer for the Belleville college, said Forcier has not been employed by the institution for five years. Lorimer refused to give exact dates when Forcier worked at the college, nor would she say what Forcier taught, saying she couldn’t comment further due to the active police investigation.
Forcier also worked as an instructor at St. Lawrence College for two semesters, once in 2014 and again in 2016. She taught a course called Intervention Strategies for Addictions.
Why was the group home closed?
Just a month after Forcier went on leave, in May 2013, Mark Kartusch, then executive director of Highland Shores, announced the closure of the Willett Road facility where Nick had stayed, citing financial issues.
For some, the timing of the closure announcement seemed suspect.
“I think it’s a bunch of hogwash,” said Jess, a current employee at Highland Shores. Her identity is being masked to protect her employment since Highland Shores staff have been threatened with termination by management if they speak to the media.
“They knew this was a big thing, a big black eye for the agency; it was an easy cut. It was like killing two birds with one stone,” Jess said.
Annie also said Highland Shores’ explanation for the closure didn’t sit well.
“It’s not funding. It happened within months. It happened too quick,” she said.
For Callahan, the speculation by those who believe the facility was closed due to potential wrongdoing was just that: speculation.
“I can unequivocally say that that decision was entirely a budget decision. I was part of the senior team at the time. We were facing financial pressures,” she said.
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Callahan was not executive director in 2013, when the closure was announced. In fact, Callahan was only made executive director just weeks before Forcier’s charges were laid. Kartusch was the executive director of Highland Shores from its creation in 2012 until mid-January 2019, when he took a position as the executive director of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.
While Kartusch was in charge, Callahan worked as Highland Shores’ director of service — a top management position at the Children’s Aid Society.
For his part, despite repeated requests for an interview, Kartusch refused to answer questions from Global News. Instead, he sent a short statement.
“I share (Tami Callahan’s) confidence that Highland Shores Children’s Aid follows the processes and protocols that are in place in all Children’s Aid Societies and police services across the province, taking every step possible to ensure concerns and allegations are thoroughly investigated,” Kartusch said.
After he left the group home, Nick’s parents decided they should sue Highland Shores.
“Seeing the pain and suffering for Nick, we also contacted a lawyer because too much wrongdoing was going on there,” Annie said.
Thompson introduced them to John Bonn, a lawyer who had represented several complainants in child abuse cases involving foster parents chosen by the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society.
Bonn, when asked in 2019, says he was, indeed, first contacted for the civil suit and remembers Nick and Annie travelling up to Ottawa to have the tattoos removed at Children’s Aid’s expense.
But that lawsuit never materialized. It was around this time Nick started getting into serious trouble with the law.
In 2015, Nick pleaded guilty to several break and enters, for which he went to jail for three months.
In 2017, Nick was involved in another break and enter and an attempt to burn down a home.
Then, in June 2018, Nick died by suicide.
His death ruined Annie. For months, she couldn’t work, and her mental health suffered.
By January, she had started to feel able to work again, but then Forcier was charged.
“This is a part of my life that I have buried. As soon as it came up, I’m starting to remember things,” she said.
Now, old questions have been plaguing her. Though Annie said Nick never mentioned anything about having a sexual relationship with Forcier, she wonders if Nick would speak up about such a relationship again since he had already been sexually assaulted as a child.
“I think more boys would come forward if sexual assault was taken more seriously,” Annie said. “I just don’t know how many boys, men or males need to take their own lives or live their life in anger, jail or suffering due to the predators that harm them.”
But for Annie, it’s highly possible those answers will never come.
“Because he’s not here to tell his story anymore, and I don’t know why. Did she abuse him? Is that why he took his life? I will never know.”