Foster care abuse settlement brings little comfort to some victims

The decision in a massive, years-long class action lawsuit took one hour on Friday afternoon and fell far short of many victims' expectations.

Thousands of Albertans affected by class action lawsuit settlement

Several people opposed a class action lawsuit settlement in an Edmonton courtroom Friday, but hundreds of others will benefit. (CBC)

After 10 years of dragging through papers and stamps and lawyers and dockets — the finale takes one hour.

And it's far from grand.

Six lawyers in well-cut suits sit at the front of the courtroom.

Their backs to the gallery, they face a judge in red robes who tells them at 2 p.m. the proceedings must wrap at 3 p.m. sharp.

In the rows of wooden benches behind them, a small crowd hangs on their every word.

It will mean something to their lives if the judge approves a lawsuit settlement today. And for many people, this hour could dictate their livelihoods.

'Miscarriage of justice' 

One woman, hesitant but clear-voiced, climbs into the witness stand. Her black and white checkered jacket hangs off her shoulders. Her hair is greasy.

"This is a miscarriage of justice," she says. The judge orders the media not to publish her real name - let's call her Sue.

"I've been through so much the last 38 years," says Sue.

She tells the court she was abused when she was a child in provincial government care. She originally signed up for this class action lawsuit in 2004.

Sue believed they were going to sue the government for negligence, for damages - for emotional pain and lost income. Instead, she got a $48,000 pay out from Alberta's victims of crime financial benefits program, for which any victim of crime in Alberta can apply.

Her lawyer took 40 per cent and she had other loans to pay. So in the end, she says she took home just $10,000 of that settlement.

When Sue kept that small sum, she very likely waived her right to benefit from the lawsuit in this courtroom today. Today's lawsuit is quite different from the one many people signed up for 10 years ago.

That original suit promised millions for each survivor. But it stalled in 2008.

Sue doesn't want this new lawsuit settled right now. She says she wants more time to find a lawyer, to figure out why the original plaintiffs weren't told about the changes. Or their rights.

"I need something paid for what was done to me," she says. "We were not told of the consequences ... if we accepted compensation."

Hoping for enough

Watching her, Kane Blacque screams on the inside.

Like Sue, he has been waiting. Blacque also signed up for the lawsuit in 2004. It took him 10 years to realize how different the suit is now — and that he too likely wouldn't benefit from today's settlement, because he accepted $32,000 from the victims of crime financial benefits program years ago.

"This isn't what I signed up for," he says outside the courtroom, before the hour started ticking away.  

He entered government care as a baby and claims sexual, mental, emotional and physical abuse over 18 years in the system. At one time he thought litigation would bring relief from that anguish.

Now, he believes this process made the pain worse.

"The abuse ... may have stopped years ago. But it still exists and lives in me today. And I'm constantly reminded by the government, lawyers and media," he says.

"Enough is enough."

He's not the only one who is weary. Justice Denny Thomas tells the crowd he has presided over this case for the past 10 years, and expected it to drag on longer.

"I believed I would manage it for the rest of my career," he says.

He reminds Sue and Blacque and the others who came to watch that his powers on the bench are limited here.

Thomas can't rewrite the settlement as it reads now, or bring back the earlier version of the lawsuit many victims had so hoped would come through for them.

3 p.m.

He can only approve — or not approve — the settlement outlined in pages and pages on the desk in front of him.

And his conclusion takes just a few short minutes.

He calls it "fair" and "reasonable" that as many as 4,000 victims who suffered abuse as children in the Alberta government's care will now be able to apply for victims of crime compensation, no matter how much time has passed since the crime.

People who were under permanent guardianship from 1966 to 2008 and who were under temporary guardianship from 1985 onward are eligible. They must apply within 12 months. The average pay out will be $15,000 to $30,000 per person. 

Justice Thomas makes no comment on how short this falls from the millions of dollars some were promised. That's not what this hour is for — and it's almost up.

He approves the settlement. Then takes another three minutes to arrange payment for the lawyers.

The red numbers on the digital clock over the courtroom read 3 p.m.

Everyone stands. In their ears still are the last words the justice system will say about this decade-long chapter of their struggle.

"And so, that's it. Thank you very much."