What is This Document About?
One day in August 1989, a seven-year-old girl began to tell her foster mother the details of the horrific sexual abuse that she had suffered at the hands of her biological family. A year earlier, she and her two younger siblings had been removed from their home by the local child welfare agency, Family and Children's Services (FCS), because of evidence of abuse and neglect.
Little did anyone know at the time that this disclosure was to launch the largest child sexual abuse investigation in Canadian history - what has come to be known as a multi-victim, multi-offender (MVMO) case. The investigation that began with three children in 1989 had, more than five years later, uncovered close to 300 victims and more than 100 alleged perpetrators throughout Leeds-Grenville.
Only a small proportion of the victims experienced the forms of abuse that triggered the case, but all of them had been sexually violated as children, many of them by more than one perpetrator. By October 1994, 65 perpetrators had been charged with 376 offences. Of 45 trials completed, 41 individuals had been convicted. Nineteen cases are still before the courts as of this writing.
When the first charges were laid in February 1990, the Brockville daily paper broke the story. It was quickly picked up by national media and the so-called "Prescott sex scandal" made headlines from coast to coast. Sensational coverage fed frightening rumours about satanic cult activity and organized child sex rings.
The town was shaken to its core. Feelings of safety and normality were shattered. In the face of uncertainty about the nature and extent of the abuse, some townspeople felt helpless and found it difficult to cope. The emotional reactions expressed - shock, fear, denial, anger, bargaining and sadness were those of a community in mourning. They are common to groups traumatized by large-scale natural disasters and major tragedies. The difference here was that the child sexual abuse could not be explained as an accident or "act of God." For most people, the fact that this "disaster" was so clearly "manmade" made it much harder to grapple with.
The Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two parts - danger and opportunity. Prescott made a clear decision to turn a dangerous situation into an opportunity. Instead of sweeping the painful reality of child sexual abuse under the rug, a wide spectrum of community services seized the opportunity to do something about it by working together in an unprecedented manner.
Prescott is an historic 19th century town that skirts the St. Lawrence river in South Eastern Ontario. It's 4500 residents are part of the wider community of 90,000 in the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville. This quiet town is near Brockville, the County Seat, and about 90 kilometres south of Ottawa.
With the assistance afforded by the provincial Ministry of Community and Social Services, a coordinated effort was mounted by the police, the child protection agency, the criminal justice system, the boards of education and the health, mental health and social service network to put a stop to the abuse and help the children and community heal. The Prescott Child Sexual Abuse Advisory Committee, headed by the towns mayor, was formed to direct this effort.
This is the story of how Prescott and the surrounding community tackled a multi-victim, multi-offender crisis head on and took courageous, responsible and constructive action. It is the story of what one community learned about child sexual abuse, about better ways to combat it, and, ultimately, about itself in the process.
What Are The Aims of this Document?
1. To help communities survive a multi-victim, multi-offender child sexual abuse case by sharing the lessons learned in Prescott.
2. To suggest ways communities can be better prepared for a Multi-victim, multi-offender crisis.
3. To offer strategies for mounting a coordinated and child-centred community response to sexual abuse and for working together effectively as service providers and concerned community members.
4. To share ideas on how to prevent child sexual abuse and work towards safe and healthy communities.
Facing the issue and rooting out the problem elude most communities. Prescott has done what few dared to do: expose the crime, break the cycle and protect the children
- Judy Steed
What is a Multi-Victim Multi-offender Child Sexual Abuse Case?
According to the definition used in the federal government report on child Asexual abuse in Canada, Reaching for Solutions, sexual abuse occurs any time someone in a position of authority misuses power over a child for the purposes of sexual gratification. It includes incest, sexual molestation, sexual assault and the exploitation of a child for pornography or prostitution. 1
The offender is usually someone the child knows well and has come to trust and obey. If the abuse happens within the family, whether or not the abuser is a blood relative, it is called intrafamilial abuse. If it is perpetrated by someone outside the family, it is referred to as extrafamilial abuse.
An increasing number of cases of child abuse involving more than one victim or more than one offender have recently surfaced across Canada. Multi-victim, multi-offender cases involve numerous children who are abused within a certain, identified community, often by several members of that community.
An MVMO case can happen:
- in a children's setting such as a residence, a school, a day care centre or a foster home. It may be current or historical. Offenders may be associated with the setting or part of the external community. Abuse in this setting is generally extrafamilial.
- within a defined geographical area where there are many victims and many offenders (many of the latter being past victims themselves) within the same community. The abuse is often both intra- and extrafamilial.
In the last five years, the most well-known multi-victim, multi-offender cases have taken place in children's settings, such as the Mount Cashel orphanage in Newfoundland, training schools in Ontario and residential schools for aboriginal children throughout Canada. In these instances, the abuse was exposed many years after it occurred, by adults who found the courage to speak up about the painful violations they had endured as children.
The Prescott case is one of the first, and certainly the largest, multi-victim, multi-offender case in Canada to emerge within a defined geographical area rather than an institution. And while many adult survivors of sexual abuse were identified, the bulk of the victims revealed by the investigation were children, and much of the abuse had been recent or ongoing. In other words, the Prescott investigation intervened early enough to stop the abuse and provide help to many victims while they were still children.
Although nobody really knows how pervasive MVMO cases are, many professionals working in the area of child sexual abuse believe they are not uncommon. We know that child sexual abuse has the potential to go on within extended families for generations. We know that some children who experience abuse may grow up to perpetuate the cycle of abuse as adults. We are also increasingly aware that children who are abused by one perpetrator are more at risk of revictimization by others.
There is a belief that multi-victim, multi-offender cases happen only in a few unique places and nowhere else. The only difference between Prescott and other communities was that some money, time and investigative capacity were put in here to tip the first domino.
Child sexual abuse may be more conspicuous in small towns because it is generally easier to see and trace. Generations often continue to live together in these areas. According to Pam Gummer, child abuse project coordinator with Family and Children's Services, the team investigated several family systems in which sexual abuse was extensive. "I tracked one family from 1924 right through," she says. 'The abuse was there in that first generation and went on for five or six generations. The people aren't transient so the abuse is more visible."
Increased public consciousness and changing attitudes on the part of professionals and community members were factors that led to the exposure of the Prescott situation. Although this abuse had undoubtedly been going on for many years, says Phil Ogden, director of Beechgrove Children's Centre, a children's mental health agency serving Leeds-Grenville, "only recently have people been able to look at it and recognize it."
He believes, as do many others, that there are MVMO cases in other communities that have not yet been revealed. The situation in Prescott "was known at some level, either unconsciously or peripherally, to a lot of people in the community,'" he adds. Something had to be done. Says Anne Kindervater, a Prescott town councillor, "It took a couple of children to come forward and say, "This happened to me," it took foster parents who listened, and social workers and police officers who cared ... It took a new generation to stop it" 2
The bizarre nature of the original disclosures proved to be one of the catalysts for the investigation. The shock factor made the authorities sit up and take notice, says Bridget Revell, one of the therapists who worked with the child victims. But what was different, she says, was that the investigators didn't stop with the first three children. 'They became more and more committed. They had the willingness to believe the children and take action."
I think kids should be given the opportunity to tell their story and to receive support. That's what we did differently. We took a very proactive approach.
- Pamela Summer - team leader, Child Abuse Project, Family and Childrens Services.
That commitment, combined with enough resources to carry out a proactive, thorough investigation, helped to uncover the massive numbers involved in this case. Pam Gummer outlines key strategies that distinguished this investigation from others: "Traditionally when you get an allegation of child abuse, you go in and do an interview with the child. Say the child discloses that Uncle John sexually assaulted him, then the interview generally shuts down. What we did differently was ask the question: 'Has anyone else done anything like this to you?' It's amazing how many children will report that, as a matter of fact, yes, A, B, C and D did it as well."
The other strategy used by the investigation was to interview all the children believed to be abused by a known perpetrator and give them the chance to tell their story and receive support. She recalls one example: "Five children had disclosed, and the perpetrator had admitted to abusing them. The children said they had seen the perpetrator abuse four other kids. We went to those other kids and said, 'Is there anything you'd like to talk about?' That's not always done if the perpetrator is out of the community. If the kids are safe, they aren't necessarily given an opportunity to tell their story."
Peter Adams, a Prescott criminal lawyer who has defended many of those charged in the case, believes that sexual abuse would be found in many more places if enough funds were made available to bring it out into the open. "If every community in Ontario got the kind of resources that were poured into Prescott, you'd get the same kind of charges," he says. 3
It is important to note that although the media identified Prescott as the focal point of the investigation, and initially it was, cases were uncovered throughout the entire county and in surrounding counties as the investigation widened. As it turned out, only nine per cent of all the victims and perpetrators in this case actually lived in Prescott.
The Challenges of MVMO Cases
The two distinctive characteristics of an MVMO case of child sexual abuse are magnitude and complexity. MVMO cases have the following effects:
Many community agencies are already overloaded by growing numbers of child sexual abuse cases, even though reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Few communities have the resources or coordinated systems to deal with the demands of single cases let alone a large and complicated MVMO case.
The large number of victims and offenders, many of whom know each other, makes the interviewing process more complex and intricate. It must be done with great care by skilled, compassionate, careful, and objective interviewers. Care must also be taken not to contaminate evidence by ensuring that victims do not discuss their stories with each other.
Large numbers of victims, witnesses and offenders can lead to long court proceedings and delays in the judicial process. Delays in protection proceedings can impact negatively on children, whose lives are in limbo while they await court decisions about permanent custody arrangements.
Court preparation is a critical aspect of any child abuse prosecution. In MVMO cases, a victim/witness preparation program is needed which meets the needs of many victims simultaneously and builds in safeguards against the contamination of evidence.
What made this case of child sexual abuse unique was the sheer number of victims and perpetrators involved and the interconnected nature of the abuse. Many of the victims had been abused by more than one perpetrator and many of the perpetrators had abused more than one victim.
Treating the victims of MVMO cases can present unique problems. The increased risk of contaminated evidence may narrow treatment options. The possibility of disclosures being made during the course of therapy requires more emphasis on documentation. Good relationships with the investigative team are critical.
The number of single cases of abuse easily exceeds the number of disclosures in multi-victim cases overall, but individual cases often go unnoticed because they are easier to hide. Multi-victim cases are less easily concealed.
The public nature of a large-scale MVMO crisis and the accompanying media glare can stimulate stress-related responses and a grieving process among community residents. This can hinder the efforts of front-line professionals trying to coordinate services to victims and families. The community itself requires healing and morale-building.
Media sensationalism can add to the suffering of the child victims and families. It can also interfere with the investigation by creating pressure to make arrests and can also make it more difficult to ensure fair trials for the accused in their home community.
A highly publicized MVMO case places social service systems and professionals under increased scrutiny, creating a fishbowl environment. It may attract outsiders intent on using the tragedy for their own benefit.
In MVMO cases, convicted perpetrators may return to the community after their sentences are completed. Plans must be made for the reintegration of offenders that take into account the fears of residents and the need to protect the community's children.
Why Read This Document?
Multi-victim, multi-offender child sexual abuse cases present unique challenges and demand special responses. This handbook shares the insights and strategies that have been developed over the course of the last five years while dealing with the largest case of this type in Canada and possibly in North America.
This Document has been produced to help other communities avoid uncoordinated and potentially ineffective responses which can have a negative impact on prosecutions, treatment, prevention and the lives of survivors. A poor response can exact a high price from victims, families, potential victims, the accused and the community as a whole.
We attempted to get the message out that if we really believe the statistics from the reports compiled by Badgley, Rogers and others, then the numbers found in Prescott should not be surprising and in fact we have only found a small percentage of abuse that can be found in any Canadian community.
- Rocci Pagnello, Supervisor, Prescott Child Abuse Project
This document does not provide a single formula for confronting multi-victim, multi-offender cases. Because each case is different and each community has different resources, there is no easy step-by-step approach that will apply equally well to every situation. We hope that by learning about our experience, our particular challenges, and the strengths and weaknesses of our response, you can adopt useful tactics and avoid serious pitfalls.
Most people don't believe a multi-victim crisis could happen in their community. Neither did the people of Prescott and the surrounding area. Unwillingness to believe that adults we know or know of are capable of abusing children is common and understandable. But not only can it happen, it is happening in other communities at this very moment.
For those who aren't facing an MVMO crisis, this handbook can be useful in several ways. First, it describes many practical steps a community can take to be prepared for a crisis. This is a form of disaster planning. When an earthquake hits, you're a lot better off if you've decided ahead of time who will do what, rather than try to figure it out in the midst of chaos. The same holds true for an MVM0 case. In Prescott and area, we didn't have our systems and protocols ready, and this added greatly to the stress we underwent during those first harrowing months.
Second, the handbook provides ideas on how to deal more effectively with individual cases of child sexual abuse in your community. At this very moment, many children are suffering sexual abuse. Regardless of whether the abuse ever becomes public, it must be recognized as a crisis for the children and families involved. Now is the time to start improving the way communities reach out to abused children and their families and stop the cycle of abuse. Our experience has shown that a coordinated, integrated response among service providers offers the best means to accomplish this.
Finally, we hope the handbook will encourage communities to seriously consider the urgent need for a wide range of prevention efforts to end child sexual abuse. Child-centred prevention programs by themselves are not enough. It is not reasonable to place the onus on children to keep themselves safe. Child sexual abuse is caused by adults and is a complex problem that requires a comprehensive and multifaceted approach. School, family and community-based efforts are all part of the solution. We all share the responsibility for protecting children and safeguarding their dignity by building towards safe and healthy communities.
I hope Canadian society wakes up to the fact that thousands and thousands of children are suffering this terrible abuse.
- Sandra Lawn, Mayor of Prescott
Who Should Read This Document?
You will find this handbook helpful if -
- you are directly affected by a child sexual abuse crisis (as a community leader, professional or community member)
- you work in the area of child sexual abuse and family violence in a professional, paraprofessional or volunteer capacity
- you work with children, youth and families in the fields of education, early childhood education, medicine, community health, mental health, recreation, religion, social services, policing, law or corrections
- you are a parent, foster parent or child care provider
- you are committed to making the community more responsive to the needs of sexual abuse survivors, helping to prevent child sexual abuse and building safer and healthier communities for families and children
- you are involved in policy-making, planning or program management at the federal, provincial or municipal level in the fields of social services, health, justice, education or corrections
- you work in the media.
What's In This Document?
This introduction (Part 1) provides an overview of the multi-victim, multi-offender case that came to light in Prescott and explains what the document is about and who should read it.
Part 2 provides general information on child sexual abuse and answers some common questions.
Part 3 provides background information on the Prescott case and describes how the investigation began.
Part 4 looks at what was learned from Prescott's experience and provides helpful suggestions for surviving an MVMO crisis.
This document is not just about what you do when you suddenly find out about a multi-victim case of sexual abuse. This is important reading for all communities.
Section I describes the strategies used in the investigation and prosecution of the case as well as in the provision of treatment and support services to victims and families.
It illustrates the impact of the media frenzy an explains how the social service and criminal justice response were coordinated at the community level and on the front line.
Section II focuses on meeting the needs of the community in a child sexual abuse crisis. It outlines issues related to community healing, prevention strategies and how to help adult survivors. It also discusses the necessity for treating and reintegrating perpetrators into the community. Finally, it examines the challenges of conducting a project evaluation.
Section III summarizes the key lessons emerging from the Prescott case.
Part 5 explores ways to prepare for and reduce the chance of a crisis occurring through advance planning and strengthening community responses to child sexual abuse.
Part 6 contains a list of suggested readings and useful resources on child sexual abuse.
Remembering The Real Heroes: The Children
Although adults who took responsible action to stop child sexual abuse are to be commended, let us never forget who the real heroes of this story are. Of this story, and of all stories of child sexual abuse.
The children. The first children who disclosed abuse in the Prescott case, and every child who ever discloses abuse. The children who faced the frightening experience of courtroom testimony in this case, and every child who ever goes to court to name their abuser and seek justice. The children who worked with the Treatment Team to deal with painful issues in their lives, and every child who ever makes that formidable effort.
Jody was one of these children. She is an actual person, although to protect her identity we are not using her real name. She is one of the many children this story is all about.
Keep her voice in mind as you read the rest of this document and learn more about child sexual abuse and how we dealt with it. She and the others have endured violations and betrayals that no child should ever have to experience.
Between the ages of six and ten she was repeatedly sexually abused by trusted individuals inside and outside her family. She disclosed this abuse to an understanding teacher and her case became part of this investigation. She was removed from her home and placed in a succession of foster homes where she had to adjust again and again to new families and environments. She benefited from the therapy and support provided by the special Treatment Team set up to help the child victims. She also had the full backing of the investigators, the child welfare workers, the prosecution team, her foster parents and many teachers. She bravely testified in court against her family on several occasions.
Today, at 20, Jody is studying at a community college and preparing for a career in the helping professions. She is a courageous, compassionate and resilient survivor. Her greatest dream is to help create a world in which no child ever has to suffer sexual abuse. We hope that her indomitable spirit will energize all of us to work hard in our own communities to make sure that her dream becomes a reality.
Jody Speaks Out
"While I was living at home during the times I was sexually abused, I felt love towards my parents even though they allowed the abuse to continue. I remember thinking that this was the "norm" of family life. I was brought up in poverty. I now realize that all my basic needs were not being met, such as appropriate clean clothing, proper meals and being taught basic life skills. The effect of my lifestyle caused me to become very lonely, withdrawn, isolated and depressed.
I had great difficulty making and retaining friends as I felt no sense of worth. Other children wouldn't play with me which made me feel ugly and rejected. I didn't feel I had anyone to confide in or anyone I could trust so I remained silent, living with the fear of severe consequences if I spoke up.
During the times of the abuse, I totally withdrew or blocked out what was happening to me. I remember being aware of what was going on, but pretended it was not happening to me. Due to this abuse, I had difficulty trusting others. There are many things I can't remember that happened to me in the past. Upon occasion, I have flashbacks of events and sometimes "blank out" for several minutes at a time.
I don't have happy memories of my early school years. I had poor study habits because I couldn't concentrate. My grades were not good and I had to be placed in a special class where I received remedial help. This contributed more to my low self-esteem. I came off as a very shy kind of person. I was made that way. As a little child, I didn't have a chance to develop my own personality. It was determined by what they did to me.
I didn't tell a family member or a friend. I talked to a teacher. He'll always be a special teacher to me. I faked sickness a lot and the teacher finally asked me what was going on. That was when I told him about the abuse. If he hadn't asked the question, I probably wouldn't have told him.
I don't think a child is capable of making up stuff like sexual abuse. They wouldn't be able to describe it so vividly if it wasn't actually happening to them. A child is not capable, in 99% of cases, to say 'No' to the person abusing them because they are in a position of authority. And if you've been abused since, say age six, until 20, it's your way of life. You're not even going to know it's wrong.
When I first reported the abuse I felt that nothing was being done because nothing came about until years later. Then it kind of hit me by surprise when the investigation started and I saw that they were doing something. High school suffered a lot during the year with all the trials going on. I was away more than I was there. I found it really hard. But a lot of the teachers were really understanding and supportive. I also had one friend who was really supportive.
Court was kind of frightening. There were a lot of things I didn't like about it. I always felt that it should be the person accused, not me, up on the stand. It feels like you're a victim all the time. There were a couple of defence lawyers that I didn't like. One was talking way over my head. The judge couldn't even understand him. Another just kept asking me the same question over and over. I had the hardest time at the trial of my Mum and Dad. It's hard to get up and testify against your parents.
What helped me? Caring people telling me that the people who abused me aren't well, that it's not a normal thing to happen and no child can control an adult's behaviour. The police officer was warm and caring, open and honest. She knew it was hard. She would talk to me.
Therapy was really great. The therapist said my emotions are blocked off from the events. I can remember the events but not the emotions around them. So, if I get mad now, I really get mad and if I start to cry, I really start to cry. It cleared up questions for me about why I couldn't remember emotions. People would ask that during the trial - what did you feel at the time it was happening? I didn't know.
I'd say one of the hardest things about abuse is the loss of your family. I had to let go of my whole family. Being a victim affects all the relationships you'll ever have in your life. When I first went into foster care, I had mixed feelings. I felt lonely, taken away from my family, I had no idea where my life was going. I was confused, wondering what I had done wrong to be torn from my family even though the situation had not been good. I felt rejected by everyone I had known and cared about.
I also felt that the whole world knew about what had gone on in my past. When people look at your file they think you're really mixed up. It's really annoying. And you're not. I'm alive, I'm here and I have a brain. But I felt like I had lost my identity and had absolutely no control over the happenings in my life. I was not allowed to share any part in the decision-making as to my immediate future.
I've been in foster care for the past nine years and I've lived in eight different homes. I've had varied experiences, some good and some not so good. With each new home there were many adjustments to be made. I had to become acquainted with totally new surroundings, learn new rules and regulations, accept new brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents etc. etc. I had to get used to new schools, try to make friends and so many other things.
I realize now that the foster families had adjustments to make too. They were responsible for establishing rules and consequences. My foster parents even had the "privilege" of sharing in my many mood swings. They were there, on many occasions, when I needed help with school work or school-related problems.
Early in foster care I was taught basic life skills. From foster parents I learned how to cook, bake, clean, garden and even do crafts. I now realize the patience they must have had as they worked with me! As I look back over my years in foster care, I realize how important these families have been to me. Each family has shared in their own unique way. From day one here I've felt part of my current family. As soon as I walked in the door, it was like, here is my daughter. As I step out into the world on my own, I will be taking with me many values which I've learned which I can apply to everyday life. I now know that I am a person of great worth and that God has great plans for me.
I don't find it takes courage to speak out. It's about helping others. If something I say is going to help somebody else who is in the same situation, I'm going to say it. If you want to help sexually abused kids, tell them you believe them and that it's not their fault. Adults who sexually abuse kids should be made to get help. They should be in jail longer than they are in most cases. A person who is sentenced to a year may get out in six months. It doesn't seem fair for the abuse they've done to another person. That person has to live with the abuse for the rest of their lives. It's not a life sentence for them but it's a life sentence for the victim.
First, you have to educate the public. And second, you have to help the victims and accept that these people are feeling powerless. It's time to stop thinking it doesn't happen in this family, or in this town, or that it will never happen again."
1. Rix Rogers, Reaching for Solutions. The Report of the Special Advisor to the Minister of National Health and Welfare on Child Sexual Abuse in Canada (Ottawa: Department of Supply and Services Canada 1990). P. 19
2. Judy Steed, Our Little Secret: Confronting Child Sexual Abuse in Canada (Toronto: Random House 1994), P. 109.
3. Toronto Star, May 26, 1991.
Quotes: Page 2 - Toronto Star, May 26, 1991.