The past executive director of the former Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society has plead guilty to the organization being in contravention of Ontario’s Child and Family Services Act- namely that a child was not sufficiently supervised and protected and abuse of the child thereby occurred.
Bill Sweet, 70, was before Justice Stephen Hunter in a Zoom hearing and made the guilty plea before an agreed statement of facts were read into the record by Crown Attorney Peter Napier.
Sweet, who headed up the local CAS chapter and was responsible for day-to-day operations starting in 1986 until his retirement in 2012, was originally charged with 10 counts of failing to provide the necessaries of life and 10 counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm under Canada’s Criminal Code as result of a two-year probe by the OPP Criminal Investigation Branch. That investigation was precipitated by a string of convictions of Prince Edward County CAS foster parents for numerous incidents of sexual abuse.
However those charges were negotiated into a plea agreement to a single charge of contravening provincial law.
Ultimately, Hunter levied two years of probation, 100 hours of community service and a fine of $3,000 payable to local charities.
While the agreed statement of facts read by Napier on Monday brought into account the previous convictions of Joe and Janet Holm, Richard Fildey and Sherrilee Slatter and another individual whose name falls under a publication ban to protect the identity of his victims, the charge Sweet pled to on Monday related to the convictions against the Holms. Sordid and heart wrenching facts of how these foster care facilities became houses of horrors for the most vulnerable children in our community were difficult to listen to.
Napier explained Sweet was pleading guilty to one count of being an officer that failed to ensure that standards were met and practices were followed which unknowingly allowed abuse to occur pursuant to the Child and Family Services Act.
The Court heard that as early as August, 2002, an anonymous call was received by PECCAS that a child in the care of the Holms was the subject of sexual abuse and phonographic photos had been taken by the foster parents. A second complaint two weeks later indicated more abuse and pornographic movies were being made by the couple but no follow ups were made.
In May 2010, details of children being provided alcohol, posed in exploitive photographs, sexually explicit conversations and inappropriate contact were disclosed by a foster child that had been living with the Holms previously. While Prince Edward CAS caseworkers made the decision to remove remaining female children from the Holm home, the children remained there until July 2, 2010.
Further revelations by foster children as part of evidence in the Holm matter indicated that sexual contact occurred. Prince Edward OPP became involved in July 5, 2010 and photographic evidence of sexual contact involving foster children was located during a search of the Holm residence.
A subsequent trial led to convictions and custodial sentences against both Joe and Janet Holm and other investigations revealed more sexual abuse at other homes in Prince Edward County. Convictions were sought and obtained by the crown against the aforementioned parties and started the OPP’s CIB branch’s investigation of Sweet.
The statement of agreed facts indicate investigations into the activities at these foster homes were encumbered by CAS policy and, by extension of his position, Sweet as reports were filed by number, not name and CAS workers were required to ask for access to these special, restricted files.
“This was a long standing policy of PECCAS and, consequently, resource workers might not have been aware of previous allegations of abuse at these foster homes,” Napier said.
During the criminal prosecution against the charged and convicted parties, Napier said it was clear there were a number of issues and shortcomings at the CAS.
In particular, investigations into the illicit activities and abuse revealed Serious Occurrence Reports (SORs) were not filed with the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, timely, fulsome and adequate investigations were not always conducted upon the submission of allegations of wrongdoing and, when the OPP made investigations regarding allegations, Sweet relied exclusively on the outcomes of those police investigations.
As part of the proceedings, three heart-wrenching victim impact statements were read on Monday after the agreed statement of facts.
One victim indicated shortly after she was taken from her biological mother’s home, unspeakable acts started to occur and that the only person who could possibly save her from this abuse “gave up on her.”
Drug addiction, self harm, suicide attempts or ideation, ongoing trust and intimacy issues were a common thread between the three statements were read with quivering emotion and tears.
“I had to explain to my mom what happened to me when I was 18 years old because all she was told lies,” the first victim said, breaking into tears. “I just wish I was taken more seriously when I came forward. It’s been 16 years of trauma, the events were horrible and the aftermath has been traumatic. I will never fully recover from this.”
The second victim turned to self harm as a coping method as she became convinced that no one who could help her escape the “haunted house” believed her.
“The things that were instilled in my head, it’s taken me so long to retrain myself not to believe those things,” she said. “I fell into self harm for six years afterwards because I felt like I never had a voice. Even if I screamed for help, no one would notice and no one would care about what happened to me there.”
A third victim explained being involved in such a scarring experience with her foster family has profoundly impacted her life and who she has become as an adult and “Learning to navigate the abuse as well as the sheer disregard for my safety and life by a agency that was supposed to protect me has consumed the majority of my 20’s.”
Escaping a traumatic situation with her biological family, the third victim thought that foster care would be the start of a new life and a new direction.
“Even as traumatic and abusive as my home life was, I still had an unwavering belief that people were good,” she explained. “I initially felt safe and cared for because (her foster parents) had been vetted by an agency whose sole mandate is to protect children.”
This belief allowed the grooming process to take hold and started a spiral of sexual abuse that robbed the victim of her spirit and her faith in humanity. An inability to trust anyone including herself has compromised her future relationships.
“Much of my mental and emotional energy goes into protecting myself physically and emotionally in fear of the alternative,” she said. “The abuse I endured while a ward of the Prince Edward County Children’s Aid Society has dramatically impacted my intimate and sexual relationships. For years afterward I had no regard for my physical well being, often putting myself in compromising sexual situations. I felt as though my body and I, as a woman, had no value and I wasn’t worthy of love.”
Suicidal ideation and imagining a world without her in it is a constant struggle for the victim and the feeling make it very difficult to be present and have a sense of belonging.
“I find it deeply troubling that all of this could have been prevented if allegations and calls of concern had been taken seriously CAS. I often find myself wondering how much different my life would be ,” she added.
When making his submission, Sweet’s lawyer William McDowell said he and his client had never believed the conduct of the former executive amounted to criminal conduct.
“At the same time, we accept there was a want of care in the way the PECCAS investigated complaints of abuse with the cases at issue here,” McDowell told the court. “Mr. Sweet made mistakes. Some of them were serious but these were errors made in good faith by a good person.”
McDowell said external reviews of the foster homes at issue make it clear there is blame to go around however, as executive director of PECCAS, Sweet must and does accept his portion of the blame and that he failed to ensure standards were met.
“We accept the restricted file policy of the CAS played a role in some of the cases. While we quarrel with it, we accept the crown would have(in this case) led expert evidence that which Mr. Sweet and CAS staff relied too heavily sometimes on (the conclusions) of OPP investigations,” McDowell said.
McDowell added a report examined by both the crown and defence shows failings of many members of PECCAS staff members. Children who reported abuse did so to people other than Sweet.
“Mr. Sweet had to evaluate evidence which made its way to him and that’s not to avoid responsibility by Mr. Sweet but to illustrate this was a very complex situation,” McDowell said.
After stressing Mr. Sweet’s dedication to CAS operations and referencing character letters by a number of individuals, McDowell cited both crown disclosure and extensive expert reports used a phrase from the airline industry crash investigation trade, causes of these dreadful events were “multifactorial.”
An expansion of staff and service requirements, Sweet maintaining a role as supervisor as well as executive director, a lag in converting to digital, computer-based filing systems and records and, finally, guidelines and the restrictive file policy that would have benefitted from an external review gauged against other CAS organizations in the province were part of the many factors offered by McDowell.
In accepting the joint submission, Justice Hunter effusively thanked those victims for stepping up and offering their horrific experiences during and the traumatic fallout from living through the abuse.
“Haunted. Wounded. Terrorized. Abused and traumatized are not the words we as a society wish associated with the care of our children. Young people coming from troubled childhoods should be able to expect love, trust, compassion and, above all, safety in foster care,” Justice Hunter said. “Unfortunately and tragically, as recognized by Mr. Sweet himself, processes put in place do not always achieve their goal.”
Without going over the horrific details of the examples of sexual abuse experienced by foster children at CAS homes in Prince Edward County over a decade ago, Justice Hunter said the most significant matter this juncture was recognition of what happened under Sweet’s purview.
“Certain reports were not filed that should have been. Some investigations were not adequate. Corrective procedures were not timely. And, certain foster homes remained open longer than they should have,” Justice Hunter said. “Record keeping policies worked against transparency and prevented appropriate supervision. These factors clearly underline and, in the court’s mind, justify the finding of responsibility here.”
Justice Hunter concluded, stating he accepted the joint submission before the court on Monday because Sweet was accepting of the failures of process and do not speak to the character of the person standing before the court.
“I am more than satisfied both in action and character Mr. Sweet does not warrant a criminal conviction,” the Justice said.