VICTORIA — When the province began offering compensation last year for survivors of abuse at the Woodlands mental institution, it looked as though efforts to right a historic wrong committed against some of the B.C.’s most vulnerable people were finally at an end.
But it turns out that announcing the money was the easy part. Finding the survivors and getting them cheques was much more complicated than anyone imagined.
A year after the announcement of $10,000 payments, the government has compensated 1,113 people, including 394 people who were at the school before 1974 and were cut out of a past settlement under the previous Liberal government.
It has spent roughly $10.7 million out of the $15.8 million compensation fund. No one is quite sure how many survivors are unaccounted for, but a new round of letters and calls are going out to find approximately 400 people — likely elderly, suffering some type of developmental disability and still living with some type of support or care programs.
Health Minister Adrian Dix, an advocate of the victims for more than a decade, has extended the compensation program for another year in an attempt to find more people.
“There’s still more work to be done,” said Dix. “We’re continuing to reach out and find people and engage with people and make sure everybody who is eligible for a payment gets the payment.”
Woodlands opened in 1878 as B.C.’s “provincial asylum for the insane.” It later housed children and adults with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses, runaways and wards of the state. It closed in 1996 and was destroyed in 2011.
B.C.’s ombudsperson concluded in a 2002 report that Woodlands had been the site of widespread physical, sexual and psychological abuse against residents. Patients were beaten, kicked, shackled, isolated and bullied, concluded the report. Mentally handicapped girls were sexually assaulted, resulting in some pregnancies.
The job of finding the former residents fell to Antje Helmuth, a government librarian who volunteered to lead a small team inside the Ministry of Health.
As she tracked them down, she experienced first-hand the gamut of emotions felt by survivors at the idea of compensation — some were overwhelmed at the offer of so much money, others deeply distrustful and bitter at government, some thought it was a hoax like a fake Canada Revenue Agency scam call, and a handful refused completely or gave the cash back because they didn’t want to reopen such a dark and painful part of their lives.
“Quite a few families asked me to let them know when the cheque was in the mail, so they could be there to support the person when it arrived because they knew they’d be very distressed when it arrived because of Woodlands memories,” said Helmuth. Others, she said, wanted to be there to make sure the recipient understood he significance of $10,000 to their lives.
Helmuth started with two lists of names — files from a class-action lawsuit against Woodlands and an Excel spreadsheet someone in government had manually compiled years ago from an old patient card index.
The only criterion was that a person needed to be alive to get the money. Many Woodlands survivors have died and the rest are mostly senior citizens with mental and developmental issues. Helmuth narrowed out the deceased using the vital statistics database. She reached out to the public guardian and trustee, which handled the finances and health care of some survivors. She put ads in every newspaper in B.C., started a social media campaign to reach families and met with advocacy groups.
There were also regulatory hurdles. The government had to issue a cabinet order to make sure the compensation wasn’t declared income and deducted from a person’s benefit payments. That involved three ministries and approval from the Canada Revenue Agency.
A ministry call centre handled inquires from survivors, care givers, family members and friends. Helmuth’s team was able to cut through red tape and get cheques mailed, in some cases within two weeks. Then she’d follow up if a cheque wasn’t cashed, helping to troubleshoot bank deposits, mailing addresses and other snafus.
One part of the job did keep Helmuth up at night was fear that the money could make the survivor (often living in poverty) a target for financial abuse. Perhaps they’d be tricked into giving the money to someone else, or not recognize the enormity of the sum.
“My biggest concern in this whole thing is somebody is going to be taken advantage of,” she said. “Because we’re really talking about such a vulnerable population.”
The team developed safeguards, including conversations with family and friends, checking documents to see who had power of attorney, making sure the money was in the survivor’s name, and in some cases mailing the cheque to a safe address so the person could receive it discreetly.
She also got to see how the money brightened troubled lives.
“One person wanted a new bed and it sounded like they hadn’t received a new bed since they were a child — I actually looked and saw the person was born in the 1950s,” said Helmuth.
“One person really wanted to go on a cruise. They were up north and their home-share provider said we are going to go on B.C. Ferries.
“Lots of dental work and orthotics and those type of things they could pay for now. Two folks mentioned they could stay in their home that they had inherited longer now.”
A few — in their 80s with the mental capacity of a four or five year old child — wanted to go to Disneyland.
Vancouver lawyer David Klein, who spearheaded a class-action lawsuit on behalf of Woodlands survivors in 2005, praised the year of work by government.
“They implemented an extensive outreach program and have reached more of the survivors than I expected, and paid out more people than I’ve expected,” said Klein.
“It wasn’t just lip service, (Dix) empowered the staff that were working on this to take the needed steps to find as many of these people as possible and put some money into their hands.”
The extension of another year is the right move as well, he said.
“There will be people who are never found,” said Klein. “But if in that year they find another 20 or 30 or 50 people, it will be worth it.”
Dix said he’s been incredibly proud of the work the ministry team has done.
“They’ve been thoughtful, they’ve acted with integrity, with compassion, they’ve adjusted and learned and I think for people on the other end they’ve made an enormous difference,” he said. “I am really impressed.”
Helmuth, 62, said the work has been its own reward.
“In my 24 years of government it’s been the absolute highlight of it,” she said. “It’s been the most worthwhile thing I’ve worked on.”
To contact government Woodlands survivor project, call toll free 1-888-523-7192 or email [email protected]