Ontario youth group home chain hit with $60M proposed class-action over alleged ‘abuse’

Click to play video: 'Ont. group home operator facing $60M proposed class-action lawsuit'
Ont. group home operator facing $60M proposed class-action lawsuit
WATCH: Ontario youth group home chain hit with $60M proposed class-action lawsuit. – Mar 6, 2023

A proposed class-action lawsuit has been filed against one of Ontario’s largest youth group home operators alleging that kids were treated in an “abusive” manner and the company’s key figures “enriched” themselves at the expense of vulnerable children in their care.

The Ontario-based law firm Siskinds LLP has launched the suit and is seeking $50 million in general and special damages and an additional $10 million in punitive damages on behalf of children or young persons who have received residential care from Hatts Off.

The lead plaintiff is Jamar Morrison, who was 12 years old when he was placed in a Hamilton-area group home operated by Hatts Off.

Morrison said he is still traumatized from his time as a resident and often wakes from “night terrors” with images of kids being physically restrained and screams still echoing in his mind.

Story continues below advertisement

The proposed legal action, he hopes, will be a “wake up” call for all for-profit group home companies across Ontario’s child-welfare system.

“Children before money,” Morrison said. “That’s what the overall message is. Children need to feel safe. They need to be cared for. They need to feel loved.”

Click to play video: 'Experts: There is no accountability in Ontario’s child welfare system'
Experts: There is no accountability in Ontario’s child welfare system

The class action has not been certified and none of the allegations have been proven in court.

Hatts Off operates nine children’s group homes and at least 16 foster homes across southern Ontario. These homes take in children and youth who’ve experienced abuse or have complex mental health needs.

Gordon Naylor, the company’s founder and president, declined to address a detailed list of questions about the proposed legal action.

“This lawsuit is baseless and unjustified,” he said in a statement. “Should it move forward, we will defend ourselves against these unproven and unsubstantiated allegations.”

Story continues below advertisement

Naylor added that the company passed all ministry inspections, which are frequent and unannounced. He also said any issues that arise are dealt with in a timely manner.

“Any incidents that happen in residential care are reported and investigated by the Children’s Aid Societies and Ministry,” he said.

Filed in Ontario Superior Court Feb. 27, the lawsuit alleges a litany of ways in which the group home operator is alleged to have provided an inadequate “standard of care” at its children’s residences.

Some of the failures, according to the suit, included allegations that Hatts Off did not have appropriate policies in place to prevent “physical, sexual or psychological abuse” and to ensure youth received appropriate medical and therapeutic treatment.

“[Youths] were treated in an abusive and demeaning manner, and systematically denied their dignity and basic rights,” the statement of claim reads. “This behaviour continued for years, despite evidence which was known to the Defendants.”

The lawsuit also alleges youths dealt with poorly trained and poorly-supervised staff and there was a lack of resources to meet the kids’ “emotional, developmental and educational needs.”

“[Hatts Off] residences were chaotic and hostile and characterized by the frequent use of violent physical restraints and unlawful punishments by staff,” the lawsuit reads. “[Kids] lived in fear.”
Story continues below advertisement

Youths formally in the care of Hatts Off, according to the lawsuit, suffered “significant physical, mental, emotional” damage including depression, anxiety, emotional distress, feelings of humiliation and degradation. This led to medical or psychological treatment and suicide attempts or suicide, according to the lawsuit.

Get the day's top news, political, economic, and current affairs headlines, delivered to your inbox once a day.

Get daily National news

Get the day's top news, political, economic, and current affairs headlines, delivered to your inbox once a day.
By providing your email address, you have read and agree to Global News' Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy.

“The damage suffered by people can really be something that pervades every aspect of their life,” said Tyler Planeta, a lawyer with Siskinds LLP.

“There’s also these lost opportunities to heal and to grow and be comfortable in your own skin growing up.”

While Morrison is currently the sole plaintiff more people are expected to join the class-action suit, according to Planeta.

“We’re interested in speaking with anybody who has been in the care of Hatts Off,” he said. “We want to hear their stories.”

Morrison was previously featured in a Global News investigation that revealed troubling allegations inside Hatts Off, including underqualified staff, the unnecessary use of physical restraints and overmedication.

Hatts Off workers physically restrained him on the ground or against a wall, he said. He also witnessed repeated physical assaults on other residents, according to the statement of claim.

Story continues below advertisement

While Hatts Off provided art therapy sessions, the few Morrison took part in were useless in helping confront his complex trauma, he said.

Morrison said he tried to take his own life after being on a steady regimen of pills.

“I actually did hang myself in the closet, and a staff (member) came in, walked in and found me,” Morrison previously told Global News.

Click to play video: 'Youth in Ont. group homes say they were overmedicated'
Youth in Ont. group homes say they were overmedicated

The proposed lawsuit also takes aim at the expansive real estate holdings of the Naylor family and companies linked to them.

In addition to Gordon Naylor, his daughter Chief Operating Officer Bronwyn Naylor and Aladine Hanna, the company’s director of finance, are named as defendants in the lawsuit. Naylor Nine Holdings – a company linked to members of the Naylor family – is also named.

Story continues below advertisement

The lawsuit alleges the defendants “diverted funds,” which were meant for kids in their care to “real estate holdings” meant to “personally enrich” Gordon Naylor.

Global News previously reported that real estate owned by the Naylor family and companies linked to them is worth roughly $55 million, according to tax assessments, property records and market evaluations.

An image of a property (left) in Stratford, Ont., owned by Naylor Nine Holdings, which lists Gordon Naylor, as a director and president. And an image of a property (right) in Florida, U.S.A, which is owned by Gordon Naylor. (Global News and Zolo)

Among the properties is a waterfront vacation home in the Florida Keys owned by Gordon Naylor that’s valued at $1.76 million.

Hatts Off COO Bronwyn Naylor said the only “practical way to open programs” has been to purchase homes “often through personal debt and to rent those homes to Hatts Off.”

“We will not be commenting on the value of the Naylor family’s private real estate assets, as there are multiple private sources of income that have no relation to Hatts Off,” she said.

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'MPP Lisa Gretzky calls for end to for-profit care in Ontario child-welfare system'
MPP Lisa Gretzky calls for end to for-profit care in Ontario child-welfare system

Meanwhile, the company said its residential homes are “chronically underfunded, while we work with the most vulnerable and complex cases.”

Following the series of stories on Hatts Off, the company served a libel notice on Global News last month, objecting to the stories and alleging they included false and defamatory statements.

Global News has responded to the libel notice and indicated it believes it acted responsibly in publishing the articles and will defend against any lawsuit.

“Every incident that happened in the past was addressed and we have effective policies and guidelines to prevent their recurrence,” Naylor said. “We are constantly improving and reviewing our practices to best protect the young people in our care.”

Hatts Off said it could not comment on specific cases, citing confidentiality reasons, but said Hatts Off provides staff with extensive training.

Story continues below advertisement

“Harsh and degrading consequences would never be tolerated,” the company said. Allegations of inappropriate treatment of residents are thoroughly investigated.

Physical restraints, the company said, are only used as a last resort when the safety of a child or other person is at immediate risk and after “lesser intrusive measures – like de-escalation techniques – have been attempted.”

In response to the allegations of overmedication, the company said it relied on qualified, experienced, and reputable health care professionals to diagnose and determine appropriate treatments for its residents and to monitor their progress.

“It would be well beyond the scope of a responsible residential care provider to attempt to question or otherwise interfere with a treatment plan for one of its residents, especially if that plan were to include the prescription of medication,” the company said. Hatts Off employs a full-time psychotherapist and has contracts with five other psychotherapists who offer a variety of counselling methods, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, art therapy, trauma therapy and addiction counselling, among others.

In the meantime, Morrison is looking forward to his story and others being heard in court.

“I want the people responsible to not feel as invincible as they feel,” he said. “I don’t want it to be swept under the rug.”

— With files from Michael Wrobel

Story continues below advertisement

If you would like to share your experience working or living in the child-welfare system, please reach out to us in the form below.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911. 

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 — all offer ways for getting help if you, or someone you know, is suffering from mental health issues.

For a directory of support services in your area, visit the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

If you are a child in the care of a children’s aid society and are experiencing abuse or mistreatment or need help, you can contact the Ontario Ombudsman’s Children and Youth Unit at 1-800-263-2841.


Sponsored content