Class-action settlement amounts to ‘hush money,’ says family of Huronia survivor
TheStar.com – news/GTA – Doug Turner recalls seeing his sister with new injuries each time he visited at the Orillia institution: broken fingers, missing teeth, black eyes. But stories of abuse there may never be aired.
Sep 27 2013. By: Tim Alamenciak News reporter
When Doug Turner visits his twin sister Tracy, she often puts her forehead against his and gazes into his eyes. He thinks she’s trying to tell him something, but she can’t. She just looks.
Tracy’s mind is that of a 4-year-old. The memories of her time at Huronia Regional Centre are locked inside — she’s not able to communicate through words or pictures.
The memories express themselves in the way she plays with her stuffed animals. At times they’re like her children, kept in a row lovingly arranged on her bed. Other times they bite. A reflection of 14 violent years spent at Huronia, Turner thinks.
The only evidence Turner has of her years there are the frequent bruises, broken fingers and missing teeth the family would see on Tracy when they went there to visit her.
“She didn’t take anything away from that place, other than nightmares,” said Turner.
The institution was recently the subject of a $35-million class-action settlement between the provincial government and former residents, but Turner laments that the case didn’t go to a full hearing, where the story would have been made public.
“These people need a voice; they need to be heard. This is just like hush money for me,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Shut up and go away.’ ”
As part of the settlement, 65,000 documents will be released to the Archives of Ontario, including police reports, internal inspections, witness accounts and letters from concerned relatives. But the documents will be shielded by provincial freedom of information laws, meaning requesters may receive incomplete documents or outright refusals, on privacy grounds or for other reasons.
Many of these documents would have come out in court had the province not agreed to a settlement. In its statement of defence, the province denied that any abuse or mistreatment happened at the institution.
There are about 2,000 former residents buried in the graveyard at Huronia Regional Centre — 1,440 of them lie in unmarked or numbered graves.
Tracy, who is 55 now, was sent to Huronia on June 15, 1962, at the age of 5. It was a decision agonizingly made by their parents, after she proved too difficult to care for at home. Huronia was billed as a great place for kids.
“They said, ‘Don’t think of it as an institution, think of it as a happy place . . .’ They played this up to be a wonderful place where your children would be safe,” said Turner. “That was just a promotional little ditty to try and stick kids in there. It was the furthest thing from the truth.”
Turner remembers pulling up to the vast Orillia campus for a visit and seeing his sister outside with several other residents. They were sitting in a circle, their shoelaces tied together so they couldn’t run away. Their institutional pants were soiled.
“It was like survival of the fittest there. It was like a jungle,” said Turner. “I can’t imagine that people were treated that way. You could smell the place when you walked by. It just reeked.”
Many of the injuries, Turner suspects, were inflicted by other residents. Tracy had a deep fear of losing what little she had with her in the institution.
“When we would go to see her, what few possessions she did have, you had to guard them with your life. She would put them in a pillowcase and tie knots in the pillowcase so people couldn’t steal them,” Turner said.
Their parents were distraught over leaving their daughter in that institution, but there were no other options at the time, he said.
Switching her to a different institution might not have helped matters — Rideau Regional Centre and Southwest Regional Centre, two other homes for the developmentally delayed, are also the subject of class-action lawsuits.
After 14 years in Huronia, Tracy was sent to a care home in Oakville in 1975, where she remains today.
“For me, it was a godsend when she was sent there in 1975. I think it probably saved her life,” Turner said.
But Tracy’s time at Huronia left its mark. When Turner asks to see something, such as a stuffed animal, Tracy is still reluctant to let it go. She has just a few teeth left, partly the result of poor oral hygiene, but also from violence at Huronia. Her mental functioning hasn’t improved at all, despite attempts from the staff at the home.
“I wonder if Huronia somehow stole that from my sister, that she wasn’t able to grow,” said Turner. “I think she could have been more than she is now.”
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