Friday, January 22, 2010

Abuse alleged at schools for deaf

Abuse alleged at schools for deaf

A plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the Nova Scotia government claims he was beaten and sexually abused repeatedly by staff and students during the nine years he spent at schools for the deaf in Halifax and Amherst from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.

Another former student, who lived at the Amherst school for four years in the early 1960s, claims he was psychologically and physically abused by staff and students, and once received a severe beating after he was caught using sign language to communicate with another student.

The lawsuit has been filed in Nova Scotia Supreme Court by Walter Wilfred Wile of Calgary, Alta., and Myles Murphy of St. John's, N.L., on behalf of all individuals who attended schools for the deaf in Halifax or Amherst.

So far, eight former students who attended the schools have joined the suit which is seeking general, specific, aggravated, and punitive damages from the government.

"They were perfect victims, isolated in schools, away from their families . . . and not allowed to communicate in the language with which they were comfortable," said Tony Merchant, of Merchant Law Group, a Saskatchewan law firm that is handling the case.

The lawsuit, launched Sept 21, is one of several class-action lawsuits filed against provincial governments across the country alleging rampant abuse of deaf students at residential schools. Class actions have been launched in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and Newfoundland.

The school for the deaf operated in Halifax from 1856 to 1961. It then moved to a larger building in Amherst in order to accommodate deaf children from the four Atlantic provinces, says the statement of claim. The Amherst school closed in 1995.

The school for the deaf in St. John's, N.L., opened in 1964. So far 14 claimants have joined a class-action lawsuit against that school.

The Nova Scotia case is particularly significant because many deaf children from the Atlantic region were shipped a long way from their home to the school in Nova Scotia, Mr. Merchant said in a recent interview.

"The employees and agents, and through them the government, acted in bad faith with careless disregard for the safety of the non-hearing and communication-restricted children in their care," the Nova Scotia statement of claim says.

"The failure to protect constituted an abuse of the power and authority which the circumstances required be exercised with special care."

None of the allegations have been proven.

The Nova Scotia government has not filed a defence in the case.

"(Our legal counsel) are not currently aware of any details (of the lawsuit) and have not been served," Megan Tonet, a Nova Scotia Department of Justice spokeswoman, said Thursday.

The plaintiffs have a year from the date of filing to serve the government with the claim, Mr. Merchant said. He plans on waiting to see if class actions launched in the three Prairie provinces are certified before serving the Nova Scotia government.

Class actions must be certified or approved by the courts in order to proceed.

Unlike many other provinces, Nova Scotia's class-action legislation allows the courts to award costs to defendants in cases where plaintiffs lose, Mr. Merchant said.

"We are for certain pursuing the case (in Nova Scotia) but we are gun-shy about the costs potential," he said.

His firm is about to apply to the courts in Alberta and Saskatchewan to have the class action certified in those provinces.

According to the statement of claim filed here, Mr. Wile, 61, attended the school in Halifax from 1957 to 1960 and the school in Amherst from 1961 to 1966.

Mr. Wile alleges that he was hit about 40 times during his time at both schools, and when he was 10 a staff member struck him repeatedly on both the hands and upper arms with a wooden stick. He alleges he was sexually abused numerous times by other students and claims that on one occasion he suffered extreme pain when attacked by six other students who pinned him down on the bed and roughly masturbated him for a long period.

He also alleges a male teacher would go into the dorm with a flashlight and take boys back into his room to sexually molest them. He claims it happened to him on one occasion. He also claims a female employee would take young boys back to her sleeping quarters.

"As a result of the ongoing physical, psychological and sexual abuse while attending (the Nova Scotia school for the deaf) Wile did not receive a proper education. He attained only a Grade 8 education," the statement of claim says.

"As a further result, Wile has been emotionally scarred and has been living with depression for years."

Myles Murphy, 59, was a student at the school for the deaf from 1961 to 1965.

In the statement of claim, he alleges he was beaten on numerous occasions by staff and other students, and was once severely beaten after a supervisor found him with comic books and two Jehovah's Witness booklets. He alleges he was prohibited from using sign language which was essential for him to communicate.

"The supervisors teased Murphy because he was overweight and because he was from Newfoundland. The students from Newfoundland were constantly told they were all dirty and stank," the statement of claim says.

Both claimants say they received an inadequate education at the school and were ill-prepared to function in the working world.

'The failure to protect constituted an abuse of the power and authority which the circumstances required be exercised with special care.'