The 15-year-old girl was seeking refuge when she came to Janet and Joe Holm’s house in the mid-2000s. The couple lived in a big white farmhouse on a sprawling property just minutes outside Bloomfield, Ont., a village in Prince Edward County dotted with well-manicured homes from the 1800s.
M.K. had been previously sexually abused when she arrived at the Holms’ as a foster child, hoping to find a safe, stable home. Instead, her stay turned into a nightmare. The couple groomed her under the guise of trying to heal her. They dressed her up, made her watch porn, and eventually she was sexually assaulted by Joe.
M.K’s story is not unique. The Holms would eventually be convicted of treating the wards in their care as sexual playthings. Joe pleaded guilty to the sexual assaults of three foster girls in the home, and Janet pleaded guilty to one count of sexual exploitation, one count of permitting a person under 18 to engage in sexual activity in her home and one count of possession of child pornography in relation to three foster children in the home. Both were sentenced to jail in 2011.
A Global News investigation shows what happened at the Holm house was not an isolated case, but one of several foster homes chosen by the now-defunct Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society where foster parents were convicted of abusing children between 2002 and 2010.
Some say the abuse discovered in foster homes across the county went undetected for so long due to systemic failures at the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society. The judge who presided over the Holms’ criminal case called the abuse so outrageous that he hoped a public inquiry would be launched.
In April 2018, three years after the last conviction in the Prince Edward County abuse cases, OPP charged the former executive director of Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society, Bill Sweet, with 10 counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and 10 counts failing to provide the necessities of life.
Sgt. Carolle Dionne, provincial media relations coordinator, said when Sweet was charged, he never fostered any children of his own, but oversaw a Children’s Aid Society where several foster children were abused.
His preliminary hearing begins next month.
“Mr. Sweet intends to vigorously defend these charges. It would be inappropriate for him to comment further,” said his lawyer William MacDowell.
Meanwhile, the situation begs the question: has Children’s Aid done enough to ensure something like this never happens again?
What happened at the Holms’ house?
Two years before M.K. arrived, another girl, M.R., was also placed in Janet and Joe’s home at the age of 15. She said she was only meant to stay for a weekend after becoming violent towards her mother. Police were called, and Children’s Aid became involved.
Despite claiming to come from a fairly stable family, she stayed with the Holms for about five years. M.R. said she chose to live with the couple rather than her mother, who fought the whole time to get her back, because the Holms made her believe she was better off with them. M.R. also claims the Children’s Aid Society never made an effort to reconnect her with her family.
According to court documents from their sentencing hearing, between 2001 to 2010, Joe and Janet had 25 teens come through their home. The teens were allowed to drink, talk openly about sex and have sex with each other, but were still encouraged to have strong academics and participate in family activities.
As M.K. described it, sexuality was deliberately woven into the fabric of the family.
In the early days, Janet would set up photo shoots for her, dressing her in bathing suits and having her pose suggestively on the pool table, M.K. says
M.K. and M.R. described how the foster family would regularly watch porn together. For Christmas, along with regular teen stuff, the girls say they would receive sexual paraphernalia.
M.K., M.R. and three other complainants, whom Global News has not identified, filed a civil suit against the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society in 2013. Children’s Aid settled with each of the women in the civil suits, who signed non-disclosure agreements, forbidding them from discussing the amount they received from the child welfare agency.
According to the statement of claim, Janet seemed to favour M.K.
“If I had a relationship with a boy from my high school, Janet would want me to take pictures of them while we were being intimate and show them to her,” M.K. told Global News.
M.K. says Janet would watch porn alone with her and also hand out her contact information to men in the area.
“She thought that was hilarious. I was at that point 16, 17 years old and there were people in the community that were messaging me and talking about very inappropriate sexual things with me.”
WATCH: Woman charged with sexual exploitation worked at Children’s Aid at time of alleged offences
Joe was allegedly more overt in his pursuit of the girls. He was seemingly obsessed with M.R.’s breasts, according to the statement of claim. The document alleges that he repeatedly complimented her breasts and took photos of her chest while she was clothed. The document also details how Joe would brush up against her, so that he could fondle her.
But Joe had his sights on M.K. The court documents describe how he forced her to watch a sex tape of him and Janet, allegedly assuring her the couple had previously had sex with other foster children.
The same document claims that Joe would grab M.K.’s “buttocks and breasts at parties with pornographic material being viewed on the TV in the presence of many other people.”
This would have happened at one of Janet and Joe’s many “sex parties.”
In court documents from Janet and Joe’s sentencing hearing in 2011, Assistant Crown Attorney Jodi Whyte described the parties where foster children would entertain Janet and Joe’s friends through a game of pool.
It wasn’t normal pool.
“The loser would have a penalty,” according to the documents. “The penalties would be kissing someone or flashing someone, doing a lap dance or strip tease and ultimately sometimes resulted in one of the girls performing fellatio on someone.”
Who knew about the abuse?
When Bill Sweet was charged last year, OPP didn’t say much about why the charges were laid, other than “he ought to have known better.”
Sweet’s preliminary hearing begins July 8, and his lawyer, William MacDowell, said Sweet declined to be interviewed.
Both M.K. and M.R. said it was clear someone knew something was going on at the Holms’ house.
M.K. alleges Sweet was more interested in “making face with the Ministry” than he was believing reports of the foster children in his care.
“So, Bill Sweet was very much aware of these things, they weren’t necessarily taken seriously. He felt like children weren’t necessarily credible,” M.K. said.
Even Justice Geoffrey Griffin, in his decision in the Holms case, said repeatedly that he could not see how the Children’s Aid Society was unaware of the abuse.
“The idea that the Children’s Aid Society didn’t know or, or shouldn’t have been aware that something was going on, is hard for me to accept.”
M.R. said because Bloomfield was such a small village — 2016 Census data has the population at just over 500 people — the Holms’ sexual tendencies were no secret.
“So within town, everybody always was like, ‘Oh, there’s that foster family. I can’t believe they basically let them have kids,’” M.R. said.
But the family looked good on paper. The Holms’ foster children had excellent grades, and Janet and Joe were one of the few people that would accept teen foster children in the county.
Nevertheless, both women say Children’s Aid simply failed to act, despite several warning signs.
Both women recalled one instance involving another foster child who complained to Children’s Aid about Joe forcing her to cuddle on the couch.
“I witnessed this and she had repeatedly said, ‘I don’t want to cuddle on the couch with you.’ It wasn’t just like you and your dad cuddling, it was very, very inappropriate,” M.K. said.
When a Children’s Aid employee came to investigate, M.K. said they simply told Joe to stop cuddling the children. This, M.K. said, normalized the abuse even more.
“When you have those people telling you that then you go, ‘I guess it’s not that weird. It’s not that bizarre.’”
M.R. felt the workers did not do their due diligence when they came to the home for their checkups. But since the turnover for caseworkers was high, it was hard for them to keep a critical eye on the home.
When the workers did come to the home, about every three months according to M.R., they would often do a quick check and spend most of their time at the door talking to Joe.
“The foster parents would be there too. So even if there were any an issue you weren’t going to say anything,” M.R. said.
Janet refused to be interviewed for the story but sent Global a Facebook message, claiming Joe was responsible for what happened with the foster children, despite her conviction.
“I’ve had no contact with Joe. We have gone through the courts. We are divorced, after I found out things that had happened I divorced him. I paid the price for stuff I didn’t do.”
Janet has also written a series of books, the first of the three volumes was published in 2016, under the pen name Paisley Swindon. The series details her destructive relationship with Joe, whom she describes as a “narcissistic sociopath.”
Global News was not able to reach Joe for comment.
But M.K. and M.R. maintain that Janet was the puppeteer in the household. It was Janet who built the girls up and tore them down, pit them against each other and made them fight for her love, according to M.K. and M.R.
“She would begin to isolate you if she began to feel jealous of you,” M.K. said. “You were always trying to be there for Janet, to support Janet, that you were the favourite, and make sure you weren’t forgotten, because if you were forgotten about that was almost worse.”
According to both women, Janet ran a cliquey household. Some of the teens would even describe it as a sexual cult, a name that stuck with the Holms’ house through the criminal proceedings and afterward in the county’s memory of the events.
M.K. said it was hard to know where she stood. One moment, she said, Janet would be putting her down about her weight, or creating division between the foster children. The next, M.K. said Janet would be building her up, acting as a friend and a counsellor.
“It was all about me being empowered, that’s kind of how it was spun to me — ‘you’re a beautiful young girl, you’ve had all these awful things happen in your lifetime, we need to empower you,’” M.K. told Global News.
The sexual assault
It was M.K.’s sexual assault that brought the Holms down, an assault M.K. believes was orchestrated by Janet.
Due to an incident of past abuse, M.K. says she felt most vulnerable while showering. M.K. said Janet specifically focused on this fear, to get her to stop locking herself in the bathroom while she showered.
“She literally found everything about my past traumas from being a child, and when the abuse happened with me… it was almost literally set up to be that,” M.K. told Global News.
According to the civil suit, one day in 2010, Joe showed up in the bathroom while M.K. was showering.
“He approached the shower and opened the door and I remember getting out and reaching for a towel to cover myself,” M.K. told Global News.
The statement of claim described the sexual assault. When M.K. stepped out of the shower, he asked her to perform oral sex on him. She did but stopped before he ejaculated. He then came back to her later that day and forced her to do it again.
“Everything leading to that point, I’m uncomfortable. I don’t really want to watch porn with my foster parents, I don’t want him to grab my ass, I don’t want to have these pictures taken of me. Obviously, I didn’t want any of that, but you can kind of like brush some of that stuff off,” she said in recent interview.
M.K. said Joe kept coming back, demanding she perform oral sex on him. It became too much to bear.
In the late spring of 2010, M.K. says she reported the abuse to her case worker, who called Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society executive director Bill Sweet right away.
She said she could hear Sweet asking pointed questions: “How do you know she’s not making this up? How do you know she’s credible?”
“It was just crazy to me because even if I’m not a credible person, you still have to take those accusations seriously.”
M.K. says she can’t remember who called police, if it was her caseworker or Sweet, but her report of sexual abuse launched a police investigation.
The rest of the foster children were taken out of the home. Joe eventually pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting M.K., and two other girls in the home, and five women would end up filing a civil suit against the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society for abuse they claim they endured in the Holm’s house.
The first of many
The Holms would be the first domino to fall in the string of abuse cases discovered at foster homes in Prince Edward County.
Soon after, Roy Minister, a then-71-year-old Bloomfield man, was found guilty of molesting two girls in his foster care over several years.
Then 46-year-old Richard Fildey of Cameron, Ont., was sentenced to over two years in prison for sexually assaulting a female foster child.
His now ex-wife, Sherilee Slatter, was convicted next, of the sexual assault of a 15-year-old boy and sexually assaulting a teenage girl, who was a foster child in her father’s residence.
Charges of sexual assault, interference and exploitation were laid against Ronald Slatter, Sherilee’s father, then 65, but those were stayed, because there were problems with the case.
While the criminal cases were unfolding, Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society was absorbed by Highland Shores Children’s Aid Society on a recommendation from the what was then called the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. The decision was made jointly by the board of directors of the Hastings, Northumberland and Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Societies in early 2011 and the amalgamation came into effect in 2013. After amalgamation, Bill Sweet did not continue on with the Children’s Aid Society.
According to Nicholas Bala, a Queen’s University Law professor and expert in issues related to children, youth and families in the justice system, what happened in Prince Edward County was deeply concerning.
“We know sometimes that children who are in foster care or in group homes are abused or exploited, and this certainly happened many other places in Canada at various points in time. But Hastings and Prince Edward does seem to be a bit of a hot spot,” Bala said.
He believes the string of abuses need to be properly investigated in order to tell if any systemic issues within the child welfare agency allowed them to happen.
“Clearly, those who did the acts are those who are appropriately most accountable, but there’s also a social and systemic responsibility to look into it to see who was not doing a good enough job in supervising, who was not accessible enough to children who had concerns,” Bala said.
All in all, Bala said it’s up to the Ministry to ensure sexual abuses like the ones that took place in Prince Edward County never happen again.
“Those who are victims have a right to know that things like that will not re-occur, to get a sense that everyone who was responsible has been held accountable in some way,” Bala said.
WATCH: 5 signs a child may have been sexually abused
In fact, the province did conduct an operational review of the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society in December 2011, after some of the abuse allegations were brought forward. The review was not released to the public, but Global News has obtained a redacted copy of it from Chris Carter at Canada Court Watch, a group that fights against injustices in the Canada’s child welfare system.
(Ed. note – This story has been updated to link to the source of the internal review referred to in this story.)
The review detailed numerous shortcomings with the agency, including significant difficulty in meeting standards when screening foster parents.
In one home, 11 incidents, including claims of sexual molestation, were alleged. The report noted only two of the allegations were investigated, and neither were verified.
Reviewers made a point of noting they did not investigate management during the operational review.
Seven years after that review, in 2018, before Sweet was charged, M.K. and M.R. were notified that OPP would be bringing a criminal case against him. Both immediately consented to have their testimonials from the criminal and civil cases used in the case against Sweet.
After her abuse, M.K. said she felt alone, and especially abandoned by Sweet, who she says never once spoke to her after she came forward about her abuse. She says that Janet and Joe harassed her after she came forward. It took a lot of work and therapy to get herself to the place she is now.
M.K. actually volunteered with Highland Shores Children’s Aid as she got older, and still has faith that the system can help children.
But she can’t help but shake the feeling that Children’s Aid has never fully acknowledged what happened to her and to the other children over a decade ago in Prince Edward County.
“All I really wanted them to say was, ‘We’re really sorry this happened to you.’ And to this day that’s all I really want, and to this day that hasn’t happened.”