Two decades ago, a Jericho Hill School for the Deaf student revealed a dark secret. For him and hundreds more, justice took far too long to arrive.
Former students at the Jericho Hill School for the Deaf got justice this month. Or at least as much justice as you can get when you’ve been searching for it for 20 years or more, and with all the resources of the provincial government lined up against you every step of the way.
Current Premier Gordon Campbell was gracious in announcing the out-of-court settlement that had been reached between his administration and some 300 past students of Jericho. Most had lost much or all of their childhood in the sexual snake-pit that was run by the province of British Columbia to provide an education to young deaf students (and, for almost 30 years, young blind students as well).
The government has agreed to commit $15.6 million to the settlement, about two-thirds of it to be provided directly to the victims, the rest to be used to set up a trust fund for any additional victims who surface, and to provide counselling and further education. “The provincial government has always believed that the best solution to this difficult situation is through a just, negotiated settlement,” said Campbell.
But five minutes of graciousness isn’t enough to make up for the fact that since the mid-1980s, B.C. governments of all stripes have tried, at best, to minimize the seriousness of the Jericho Hill situation and hence the province’s liability; at worst, to cover up the whole thing entirely. The most horrifying aspect of what the Premier called the “difficult situation” at Jericho is that most of it need never have happened in the first place. If the Social Credit governments of Bill Bennett and Bill Vander Zalm had taken proper and decisive action when sexual abuse was first disclosed, dozens fewer Jericho students would have been abused, raped, and in some cases, damaged for a lifetime.
Instead, government officials lied; they covered up the truth; and they refused to allow professionals who knew what was going on to conduct proper investigations or to deal with the situation in any meaningful way. And the abuse not only continued but worsened.
School stopped investigation
It was back in 1982 that a teenaged boy about to leave Jericho Hill was interviewed by psychologist Brenda Knight, who was on contract to the school. The boy disclosed that he’d been sexually harassed and abused by one of the female counsellors at the school. He said the same thing had happened to other boys at the school and, he said, some of those boys had gone on to harass and abuse some of the school’s female students.
Knight was horrified. She told Pam Manson, a government social worker who was the liaison worker with Jericho, about the disclosures, and the two began setting up a plan of action. Their plan would have seen them interview the boys and girls who had been named, and provide help and counselling to all those who needed it.
But the school authorities wouldn’t let them go ahead with the plan. They wouldn’t let the girls be interviewed; they wouldn’t let the parents of the students involved know what was happening; and they didn’t provide any systematic program of counselling for those who had been involved, as victims, as offenders, or as both. The Vancouver police were brought in, but couldn’t get the sort of disclosures that they believed would be needed to pursue criminal charges.
Police lacked special skills
Legal experts say the police officers shouldn’t particularly be blamed for that. In 1982, the skill-set for interviewing childhood victims of sexual abuse was still in the process of being developed. Details hadn’t been sorted out even for interviewing young victims who had normal language skills, let alone for those whose regular means of communication was American Sign Language.
After Manson and Knight’s investigation was closed down, they were quite sure what was going to happen. Younger children at the school, most of whom they could name, were going to go on to become victims of the growing number of abusers in the school.
Fast forward to 1987, some five years later. More students began to disclose the sexual abuse they had suffered and were continuing to suffer at Jericho. It was almost the same list of names that Manson and Knight had predicted. Again, the police were brought in. Again, they could find no way to be confident the students would be reliable enough witnesses to support criminal charges. This time, the school made some changes to try to prevent the abuse from continuing, by improving the physical layout of the dormitories and increasing supervision of the students.
But the changes didn’t go nearly far enough. A total of more than 20 students were identified who had been sexually abusing other students, mostly older boys who’d been raping girls as young as seven.
Abuse became ‘pervasive’
One of the experts brought in to look at the situation told the government that sexual abuse had become a “pervasive culture” at the school, and new students often were required to undergo a sexual initiation in order to fit in with their peers. The abusing students were allowed to remain at the school, however, and little therapy was provided either to them or to their victims. The education minister of the day, Tony Brummet, said publicly it was unclear whether abuse had taken place at the school at all, despite the damning internal reports.
Thus it was another five years before a truly thorough investigation took place into what had happened at Jericho. In 1992, after more complaints, a proper inter-disciplinary team was put together, and former B.C. Supreme Court Justice Tom Berger was appointed as Special Counsel to look into the issue and determine the best way to deal with the victims. Berger concluded that the abuse had indeed occurred, as had been known for a decade or more. Rather than having the victims go to court, though, he proposed an alternative compensation plan for the victims.
The NDP government of the day accepted that idea and set up the plan. And for some ex-Jericho students, it worked very well. More than 300 of them in fact applied to, and were granted money, from the plan.
But the plan had its failings as well. The most glaring one was that the maximum payout for any one victim was $60,000 – which seemed like a reasonable amount compared to the court settlements in place when Berger first made the suggestion. But in the years following, the amounts being awarded by judges and juries for serious and prolonged abuse to vulnerable child victims rapidly rose to four or five times that maximum. The compensation plan worked best for those who had suffered short-term or limited abuse, but the most vulnerable victims didn’t see why they should have to settle for 20 or 25 per cent of what they might get in the courts.
Governments fought lawsuit
At that point, a class action lawsuit was born. And despite what Gordon Campbell says now, the provincial government fought that class action lawsuit every step of the way. When the B.C. Court of Appeal agreed it should be certified to go ahead as a class action, the government appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. When it lost at the Supreme Court of Canada, it again tried to have the whole action decertified. Only when the government lost again in court did it get serious about a mediated, negotiated settlement.
Most of the victims are now young adults. Although their years at Jericho are now behind them, the settlement can’t return what Jericho took away. Let’s hope it will at least allow them to close that chapter in their lives and finally move toward building happier and more productive futures.
Barbara McLintock, a contributing editor to The Tyee, is a freelance writer and consultant based in Victoria and author of “Anorexia’s Fallen Angel”.