Negligence charges for former child welfare official after kids abused in foster care
Criminal charges against Children's Aid Society administrators 'a rare thing'
Ontario Provincial Police have taken the unusual step of charging the head of a Children's Aid Society for overseeing an agency that placed 10 children with foster parents who ended up being convicted of sexual abuse.
Bill Sweet, 67, former executive director of the Prince Edward County CAS, was charged in May with 10 counts of negligence causing bodily harm and 10 counts of failing to provide the necessities of life — a charge usually reserved for guardians who neglect children.
Sweet, who left the CAS in 2012, declined to discuss the case with CBC News. He's scheduled to make a court appearance later this month.
His case is being closely watched by advocates for children in care.
Lawyer Mary Birdsell, executive director of Justice for Children and Youth, says it could have wide-ranging implications for people whose job it is to protect children in need.
"It's not unheard of for [children's aid] societies and administrators to be sued when things go wrong," said Birdsell, who has been offering legal aid services to children in care for 20 years.
"But as far as I know, having an administrator brought up on criminal charges is a rare thing."
'I still struggle daily'
The 10 abused former foster children, now adults, will also be watching the case closely.
MK, whose identity is protected under a court-ordered publication ban, is one of them.
She was 15 years old in 2007 when the Prince Edward County CAS placed her, along with two other teenage girls, in foster care with Joe and Janet Holm.
But that foster home, meant to be a place of refuge, ended up being where MK faced even more harm.
"I still struggle daily with having to use the coping mechanisms that I learned in therapy to get through life," said MK, now 26.
She remembers Joe Holm being extremely sexually inappropriate from the start, something she says Janet Holm continually tried to cover up.
"We were told by my foster mother that my foster father was not to be present when [CAS] would do the annual visits," she said. "He was very very inappropriate with almost every single person he met."
MK says her former foster father faced no consequences when his sexually inappropriate comments and touching were exposed.
"I recall something had happened with my foster father and one of the young girls in the home, and [CAS workers] had asked us if that had actually happened and we said, 'Yes, we witnessed this happening,' and he was told not to do it again and it was left at that," MK said.
"So when the behaviour started to progress with me, I almost kind of felt that this was normal, that I deserved this."
Joe Holm went on to sexually abuse MK over the next three and a half years.
In April 2011, the Holms pleaded guilty to charges including sexual assault, invitation to sexual touching and possessing child pornography related to the sexual abuse of MK and four other children in their care. The judge sentenced Joe Holm to four years in prison and Janet Holm to three years.
Theirs wasn't an isolated case.
Province issues damning report
Three other Prince Edward County foster parents were convicted of sexual offences against children in their care — all placed with them by the county's CAS.
The large number of sexual abuse charges and convictions in what was the smallest children's aid society in Ontario prompted the province's Ministry of Children and Youth Services to launch a wide-ranging review.
A report issued in 2012 found a poorly run, dysfunctional organization where workers routinely failed to complete proper screening of foster parents. Monthly checks-ins on the foster homes were also not done.
And infighting among staff meant crucial information about foster parents was often not shared.
MK believes her social worker was not aware of the abuse until she told him.
After the damning government review, the Prince Edward County CAS was merged into the regional Highland Shores CAS.
It's unclear what led police to charge Sweet, but the report, seen by CBC News, found the CAS under his direction had issues involving, among other things:
- Child protection investigation practices with respect to foster homes, particularly with respect to record keeping and documentation, verification of abuse and compliance with requirements for child protection investigations.
- Compliance with child protection standards.
Mark Kartusch, executive director of Highland Shores, says a lot has changed in the way foster care is run in Prince Edward County.
"We have a lot of checks and balances in place. When we open a foster home there's a very extensive assessment process, some even call it intrusive," he said. "This was an extremely rare event. For something like this to happen and to this scale, it was just completely out of the norm."
MK says she hopes the charges against Sweet are a warning to all CAS administrators.
"I hope this is an eyeopener for them," she said. "I hope the agencies can be present and mindful of who they allow to be foster parents."