Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Disabled endure fear, mistreatment

Documents detail 25 cases of abuse in group homes, day programs

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One group home was so filthy and neglected that an intellectually disabled person ended up in hospital with an infection.

At another group home, a worker stole money from a vulnerable client to buy lottery tickets.

In other cases, disabled clients reported being slapped in the face, pushed up against a wall or yelled at for taking their dentures out.

In a 17-month span, there were 25 substantiated cases of physical mistreatment, emotional abuse or neglect in the province's 100-plus group homes and day programs for the intellectually disabled, people with severe impairments such as Down syndrome or cerebral palsy.

In 14 of those cases, a staff member was fired, suspended or disciplined. Five other cases involved fellow clients striking other disabled people or making unwanted sexual advances.

That's according to documents provided to the Winnipeg Free Press following an access to information request.

But the documents raise more questions than they answer.

Provincial FOI officials would not reveal where each incident occurred, declining to provide the name of the group homes investigated or their locations.

Officials cited privacy concerns, acting on what was claimed to be the advice of the Manitoba ombudsman. Many day programs or group homes are so small identifying them would identify victims of neglect or abuse.

Staff from the Family Services department would also not reveal the date of each incident, or provide a total of complaints per group home, making it difficult for the public to determine which agencies might have questionable track records or poorly trained staff.

But John Leggat, the province's executive director of disability programs, said if any group home raises a red flag with investigators, the province has several tools available to ensure clients are safe.

Normally, group homes comply quickly with any recommendations that emerge from an investigation. If they don't comply, a licensing order can be issued, a licence can be revoked or funding can be terminated.

That's what happened in the case of Dawson Trail Opportunities Unlimited, a group home in Ste. Anne where disabled people had their mouths duct-taped, were tied to a pole in the lunchroom, yelled at and belittled.

An investigation was launched in the spring of 2009. Several staff members were suspended and the province ultimately pulled the agency's funding, shutting it down.

There are roughly 5,000 people in Manitoba covered by the Vulnerable Persons Living with a Mental Disability Act, which protects people from abuse.

The province recently overhauled the act to increase fines and jail time for abusers. The province made it mandatory for anyone with knowledge of abuse to report it.

Janet Forbes, executive director of Community Living Winnipeg, says she thinks 25 substantiated complaints is probably low.

"Statistically, people with mental disabilities experience a higher degree of abuse. That's the historical experience," she said. "I think there are probably more incidents that happen that don't get reported because there may not be a witness."

Two years ago, two longtime St. Amant workers were fired after leaving two young women with special needs alone in a van while the workers went to the movies.

The case made headlines, but that didn't deter another support worker from going shopping while a disabled client was left in the car. That worker was also fired, according to the recently released documents.

An Adult Abuse Registry for Vulnerable Persons, in the works since the fall of 2009, will be up and running by this time next year. It will record the names of workers caught neglecting, mistreating or exploiting vulnerable adults and a check of the registry will be mandatory for all new hires.

Names will remain on the registry for a decade.

According to the documents, there were three incidents of a sexual nature but most involved other disabled people, not staff members. The most serious one involved a co-worker who touched a disabled person inappropriately. Police were consulted but charges were not pursued.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 16, 2011 A5

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