Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lawsuit alleging abuse at schools for the deaf continues to grow

Source Link - Lawsuit alleging abuse at schools for the deaf continues to grow

A lawsuit filed against the province of Manitoba late last month by two women who allege they suffered years of sexual abuse at the Manitoba School for the Deaf is only the latest in a massive class-action suit that will next set its sights on Canada's East Coast, says a lawyer leading the claim.

In a suit filed Sept. 30 in Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench, the former students — now both in their 40s — said they were repeatedly physically and sexually assaulted and harassed by staff and classmates in the 1970s and '80s.

One woman claimed she was raped by two fellow students and molested by a teacher; the second woman claimed a staff member placed her and other girls in dog cages, depriving them of food and sleep.

The pair are seeking a court order to certify the case as a class-action suit.

But lawyer Tony Merchant said Wednesday he still expects the suit — which is linked to a string of cases alleging abuse of deaf students at government-run schools across Canada — will continue to grow, eventually filing claims against nearly every province.

"We've had people contact us from across Canada and they continue to contact us," Merchant said. "The things we are having reported to us are eerily similar from province to province.

"Sadly, the problems that these people faced flowed from the nature of their handicap and the nature of the institutions. Because of their handicaps, they were prime victims because they lacked a capacity to report and complain," he added.

Similar suits have already been filed in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Merchant said his firm will file a fourth suit in Newfoundland "very soon."

He also said that "hundreds" of alleged victims have come forward, but no monetary estimate of the class-action suit can be made, as the severity of claims varies from person to person.

Merchant said he was alerted to the possibility of systematic abuse about seven years ago when he was seated on an airplane near two women who were talking in sign language.

"One or both of them recognized me and one of them gave me a note and asked me to make contact," he said, adding that he told them to have other possible victims contact his office as well.

"On a person-to-person communication basis, the word got around that there seemed to be something there," Merchant said. "Over time, as a trickle of people turned in to a tiny stream, it became apparent to us that there really was an institutional failing here."

The first suit was filed citing the Alberta School of the Deaf in March 2008, and one involving the former Saskatoon-based R.J.D. Williams School for the Deaf was filed in March of this year.

At that time, Merchant said it had been launched on behalf of more than 61,500 students who attended 12 such schools across the country — located in every province except New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.

Merchant is no stranger to class-action suits; about 75 active cases are listed on the website of his national law firm, The Merchant Law Group.

The group has 12 offices located in six Canadian provinces, and was responsible for negotiating settlements for more than 10,000 residential school survivors as well as for the families of those who died following the listeriosis outbreak at a Maple Leaf meat-processing plant in the summer of 2008.