Ontario’s Prince Edward County is an isolated place. Geographically speaking, the county is surrounded by water except for an isthmus at Carrying Place, Ont. The county is a spot for Torontonians to take a day trip, looking for wine or a sandy beach.
But for the most part, what happens in Prince Edward County tends to stay isolated among its 25,000 residents.
Amber was only 10 years old when Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society placed her with a man she alleges sexually assaulted her.
What she didn’t know was that not long before she arrived, another 10-year-old foster child had reported the same man, Roy Minister, for sexually assaulting her. She says neither of the girls would be believed until a third foster child came forward half a decade later.
Amber said her life was nearly destroyed by her experience with Minister, and she was devastated when she heard others had been abused.
“That hurts,” Amber says. “I know it’s not my fault, but I tried to stop it and no one listened.”
In 2012, Minister was found guilty of two counts each of sexual assault, sexual exploitation and invitation to sexual touching for the abuse of two girls under his care who were not Amber.
Minister will never face a conviction with respect to Amber’s allegations because she says she was never strong enough to testify against her abuser.
Minister’s case was one of the first criminal matters to be brought against several foster parents in Prince Edward County for abusing foster children in their homes.
In 2013, the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society was absorbed into Highland Shores Children’s Aid Society and ceased to exist. However, the fallout of years of sexual assault allegations, from 2010 to 2015, continues to wind its way through the court system, including unprecedented charges against the now defunct society’s former executive director, Bill Sweet.
Sweet is currently facing 10 counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and 10 counts of failing to provide the necessities of life. Sgt. Carolle Dionne, provincial media relations co-ordinator for the OPP, said his charges stemmed not because he fostered any children of his own but because he oversaw a Children’s Aid Society where several foster children were abused.
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Sweet’s lawyer says he plans to vigorously defend himself against his charges and that it would be inappropriate to comment further.
And yet, many of the children at the centre of those allegations are left wondering: how were they failed so miserably, and are there now — at last — safeguards in place to make sure no other children suffer as they did?
Abuse in Bloomfield
In the mid-2000s, Amber, who is now 24 and whose name has been changed by Global News because of a publication ban, was taken away from her mother and placed in Minister’s home in Prince Edward County. They lived in Wellington and then Bloomfield, two small villages in Prince Edward County.
She can’t remember why she and her brother were taken away from their home and placed with Minister. What she can remember are flashes of alleged repeated sexual assaults.
According to Amber, the assaults would happen at all times of the day, sometimes even when Children’s Aid officials were in the home.
“One time after school, my worker was downstairs, and he said he was just finishing a conversation with me because I was in trouble,” she recalls.
She says the alleged abuse went on for about a year, until one day at school when her lawyer was asking how she felt about the Minister house, she broke down.
“I just froze and started shaking and trembling and I just blurted out that he was having sex with me,” Amber says.
Amber says she was immediately taken out of the home and both Children’s Aid and police began an investigation. But after a couple of months, somewhat inexplicably, both investigations ended.
“They said there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed, and he got reinstated as a foster parent again,” Amber said.
The Crown attorney’s office did not respond when asked why the investigation was dropped, and provincial police said they would not comment.
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said that in the end, the decision to reinstate a foster parent after allegations of sexual assault are discredited is up to the responsible Children’s Aid Society.
“The society, as the placing agency and/or as the foster care licensee, must determine the appropriate steps regarding both the child’s placement and the status of the foster home,” a ministry spokesperson said in an email.
When asked if the ministry had been made aware of Amber’s sexual assault allegation through a serious occurrence report — a method for Children’s Aid Societies to notify the province of such allegations — a spokesperson said serious occurrence report information is not public and could only be accessed through freedom-of-information requests.
But Kim Snow, a professor at Ryerson University and an expert in children’s services and children’s mental health, says if a foster parent is cleared of suspicion from an allegation made against them, they are free to start fostering children again. Nevertheless, she believes those allegations should not be ignored.
“In a setting where there are vulnerable individuals, such allegations should prompt increased safeguards going forward,” Snow said in an email.
For the next five years, Amber was cycled in and out of foster homes and group homes while her physical and mental state worsened. She said leaving the past behind was hard not just because of what allegedly happened to her but because no one believed her.
“After I had told everybody everything, they started sending me to counselling, sending me to doctors, putting me on pills that zombified me so I couldn’t speak about anything,” she says.
She grew to hate herself.
“I didn’t feel clean, I felt dirty. I felt like I couldn’t be loved because the one thing that I’m supposed to give someone was taken from me.”
During this time, Amber’s life deteriorated. She became violent with herself and others. As a teen, she racked up a criminal record and was consistently in need of institutional help.
“I started doing drugs, hanging out with bad people, destroying people’s lives, self-harming myself, like cutting my wrists, taking pills, trying to kill myself — like anything possible to kill myself,” she says.
After overdosing on pills, Amber was admitted to a psychiatric ward and then to a treatment centre. When she got out, she was told Minister had been charged.
In 2011, Minister faced charges for sexually assaulting another foster child, who was also 10 years old when she was placed in his care — five years after Amber had reported her abuse.
This is when Amber realized she was not the only one who had come forward against her former foster father but was actually one of three girls who had complained about Minister’s alleged sexual abuse.
Amber was the second of those foster children. Just two months before she arrived at the Minister home, a third 10-year-old foster child accused him of sexually assaulting her.
Amber says she doesn’t really know why in both her case and the case of the girl who came before her, the investigations were dropped.
More than one victim
The Minister case would be one of several discovered around the same time in Prince Edward County in which foster parents were sexually abusing the children in their care. Unlike in Amber’s case, this time the reports would lead to criminal convictions.
First, Walter Joseph Holm pleaded guilty in 2011 to three counts of sexual assault, and his now ex-wife Janet Holm pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography, sexual exploitation and allowing a child to have sex in her home. Janet was sentenced to three years, whereas Joe was sentenced to four years.
Second, in 2014, then-46-year-old Richard Fildey of Cameron, Ont., was sentenced to over two years in prison for sexually assaulting a female foster child in his care.
Third, in 2015, his now ex-wife Sherilee Slatter was found guilty at trial of the sexual assault of a boy and the sexual assault of a teenage girl, both of whom were foster children in her care.
Fourth, in 2015, charges of sexual assault, interference and exploitation were laid against Ronald Slatter, Sherilee’s father, then 65, but those charges were stayed because there were problems with the case. Ronald Slatter died this year at age 69.
Minister was one of the first foster parents to be convicted, except Amber didn’t get the result she wanted.
When Amber took the stand to give her testimony at Minister’s trial, she was 18 years old and was dealing with severe drug and mental health issues.
She tried to testify twice. The first time, she did so without a screen blocking Minister from her view. She said seeing his face made her mind go blank.
“He kept looking at me like he did when he raped me,” Amber told Global News.
Too upset by the sight of him, she asked to speak another time.
The second time she tried to take the stand, she was too high on methamphetamines to tell her story.
The jury wouldn’t convict Minister on the charges related to Amber because she couldn’t testify during the trial, but evidence from Amber’s case was used in the conviction for the assaults of the two other girls, according to assistant Crown attorney Jodi Whyte.
As a result, she says Minister was handed a nine-year sentence: three years for each of the girls who came forward against him.
It was a hard end for Amber, not having the charges stick in her case.
She had to take solace in the length of his sentence.
“When he got nine years from everything, I said: ‘Well at least there’s an extra three years so that could be my justice,’” Amber said.
Minister died in federal prison in 2017 after serving about five years of his nine-year sentence.
Who is making sure foster children are safe?
In Ontario, child protection services are delivered exclusively by local Children’s Aid Societies. Societies are independent legal entities run by volunteer boards of directors.
This is unlike other child welfare agencies in most other provinces, where children’s services are directly run through responsible ministries.
Although Ontario’s Children’s Aid Societies are fully funded by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, the regional agencies are accountable to the communities they serve, while the ministry has a general supervisory and oversight role over the child protection system.
The semi-independence of Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario has, at times, brought the province’s oversight abilities into question, says Nicholas Bala, a Queen’s University professor and expert in issues related to children, youth and families in the justice system.
“Whether there should be such a high degree of regionalization without full oversight by the provincial government, that’s a broader structural issue that could be, should be considered,” Bala said.
The result is a system where the province is largely detached from decisions made by individual agencies, a relationship that, according to Snow, the Ryerson professor, ultimately relies on good faith that agencies will follow legislation delineated by the ministry.
“You imagine that most people are responsible in their business dealings and most Children’s Aid Societies’ boards are going to do well and be responsible,” Snow said. “But like in any other industry, it’s possible somebody does not do well.”
Snow said the ministry, which is responsible for the well-being of wards in Children’s Aid Societies, has a few mechanisms to police the regional agencies. One used to be the Office of the Child Advocate, but that office was recently cut by the provincial government to balance the budget. Ontario is now the only province that is operating without a child advocate.
Another policing mechanism available to the ministry is a serious occurrence report, a subject in which Snow is also an expert. In 2016 and 2017, Snow authored two reports looking into serious occurrence reports in Ontario for the Office of the Child Advocate.
“You want to have some early warning signals,” Snow said. “This is actually one of the few the ministry has as an early warning signal that maybe the kids are not alright.”
Serious occurrence reports are made by Children’s Aid Societies to the ministry when something serious has happened, such as a death or injury of a child, abuse of a child, physical restraint of a child, any other similarly egregious occurrence or if a child has been missing for more than 24 hours, according to Snow’s 2017 report for the child advocate’s office.
These reports are meant to alert all levels of the child welfare system of an incident — they go through supervisors and executive directors and eventually land with the ministry. Snow says the reports are not just meant to alert the province but also to make sure that everyone in the system is made aware of the complaint and is dealing with it appropriately.
The province receives about 20,000 of these a year, according to Snow’s research.
The two studies authored by Snow used the serious occurrence report data to show the prevalence of abuses and injustices that were happening in Ontario’s child welfare system. The reports showed how the ministry could use that data to measure trends in abuse and to use those trends to protect children in care.
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Snow’s second report for the Office of the Child Advocate recommended making sure reports include the child’s account of the incident, which was often left out of serious occurrence reporting. Another recommendation was simply to make sure the reports were being carefully read and that some type of action was taken as a result.
Snow said she was told that the ministry was beginning to examine serious occurrence reports.
“I have no evidence of that but I’m told they are beginning and I’m happy to hear that,” she says.
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services says staff review all serious occurrence reports. It says it analyzes data from the reports it receives every year and uses the information to conduct unannounced inspections.
In Amber’s case, when two girls came forward about alleged sexual abuse at the same foster home within months, Snow said this should have caught the eye of someone at the ministry.
It’s protocol when sexual abuse is alleged to bring in another Children’s Aid Society to investigate. Amber says she does not remember another agency being called in to investigate.
Amber’s is not the only case where examinations of serious occurrence reports may have been lacking.
Last September, the Ontario coroner’s office released a report on deaths of children and youth in group homes run by Children’s Aid Societies after five young people died in child protection facilities in the first half of 2017.
The report would go on to investigate 12 recent deaths of children and youth, eight of whom were Indigenous, in group homes run by a Children’s Aid Society or an Indigenous child well-being society.
The report noted that serious occurrence reports were largely unused by the ministry, stating: “Trends in serious occurrence reports and other documentation have not historically been monitored at the provincial level to identify opportunities for improvement.”
As already mentioned, it’s unclear whether Sweet filed any serious occurrence reports in Amber’s situation since these reports are not public, which is something Snow argues for in her report.
Now, as an adult, Amber feels that Children’s Aid betrayed her by not taking her accusation seriously.
“You have taken me from my family — who were not necessarily good for me or my environment or my mental health or anything — at a young age, just to do more damage that is long-term,” Amber says.
Finally taking action?
In late 2011, after several foster children came forward about their sexual abuse, what was then called the Ministry of Children and Youth Services performed an operational review of the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society.
This led to a private government report produced in early 2012.
The review said that when it came to investigations of abuse allegations, the Children’s Aid Society often struggled. In one home, 11 allegations — some as serious as child molestation — were made. Only two were checked by Children’s Aid staff, and neither of the allegations was verified to be true.
Despite numerous operational concerns flagged in the review, the ministry made a point of noting it did not look into how Sweet, the executive director of the agency, was running the Children’s Aid Society.
“It is important to emphasize that governance and management were not investigated in detail by the operational review team and that a number of the findings are based almost exclusively on interviews,” the government review read.
These findings were not circulated to the public, but a redacted version of the document was obtained by Chris Carter from Canada Court Watch, an organization that fights against alleged injustices committed by Children’s Aid societies, through a freedom-of-information request. That document was shared with Global News.
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The review exposed numerous shortcomings with the agency, including significant difficulty in meeting standards when conducting safety tests for foster homes and foster parents. In other instances, it found that children were placed in foster homes without the legally mandated checks being done for several months. In other words, kids like Amber were being placed in foster homes that weren’t appropriately vetted by the agency.
Oftentimes, abuse cases seemed to be closed with no justification for why the investigation was ending.
“There were conflicting reports from staff about how decisions are made regarding verification of abuse in foster homes. As noted, reports and files seldom record the rationale for any decisions or the decision-making process,” the government report read.
Less than a year later, it was decided that Highland Shores would absorb Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society. According to Highland Shores, this was a joint decision by both agencies’ boards of directors. There was no mention of the abuse cases when amalgamation was announced.
The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services would not answer whether the dissolution of the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society was due to the numerous abuse cases discovered in the area but said the decision was made by the former minister of children and youth services after a “thorough review of the society’s delivery of programs and services.”
Amber’s struggle to move forward
Amber believes the Children’s Aid Society should have tried much harder to corroborate her allegations of abuse.
It’s clear to her now, as an adult, that there were steps it should have taken to verify if she was telling the truth — but didn’t.
“I didn’t go to a doctor for an exam, I didn’t go to a clinic or a nurse. I just went to a different foster home. It was like it didn’t even happen,” Amber says.
She says, too, that her mother was never informed that she had been allegedly sexually assaulted. She says her mother was told that Amber was wrestling with her foster father when he accidentally touched her. Her mother only learned of the alleged abuse during Minister’s preliminary hearing.
“I had to sit there, at 18 years old, and tell my mom what happened to me, “ Amber says. “[I] sat there and watched my mom cry because they lied — they didn’t tell her the truth.”
Amber is one of several former foster children who sued the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society after their foster parents were convicted of abusing them, or accused of abuse, despite the fact Minister was found not-guilty in Amber’s specific case.
The Children’s Aid Society settled in several of the cases, including Amber’s. She signed a non-disclosure agreement that prevents her from revealing how much she received from the agency.
The money didn’t help, she says. She was 19, heavy into drugs as a coping mechanism, and she ended up wasting much of it and giving the rest to so-called friends who left her when the money ran out.
That was years ago. Now, at 24, she is three years sober from meth and the mother of a baby boy.
Although she has worked hard to pull herself out of the cycle of abusing drugs and alcohol, she says she still suffers from her sexual abuse.
“I still have nightmares till this day,” Amber says. “My mental health is never going to be OK.”
Amber has several mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, mood disorders and borderline personality disorder. She’s also been told she has issues with authority — issues that make working difficult for her.
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Amber also ended up with a criminal record for an assault charge as an adult.
She lives off of whatever money she has left and disability while trying to raise her son in Kingston.
But Children’s Aid still looms large over her life, especially when it comes to her son. When she became pregnant, she says Children’s Aid called her to find out if she was fit enough to raise her child.
She laughed about the irony. A lot of her issues come from what happened to her when she was a ward of the state; now the state might knock on her door and take her son away and put him through the same system. She wonders, has the system changed? Or is her son doomed to the same fate?
“What’s going to happen to my baby? I know what happened to me,” she says.
“Every day, I’m scared they’re going to show up and take my son.”