Stories of abuse and trauma: Survivors say Ontario's training schools failed children

For decades, at-risk children were sent to detention schools, where it’s alleged many were victimized a second time.

For decades, at-risk children were sent to detention schools, where it’s alleged many were victimized again

Vulnerable children, most of whom had suffered trauma in their lives, were sent away to training schools where many were alleged to have been victimized again. (Parabellum Pictures)

Ontario training schools were a network of provincially operated child detention facilities, established to house children under 16 who were "unmanageable" children or, for example, those accused of a crime or truancy. They operated for decades, with the earliest ones dating back to the 1930s and the last one finally closing its doors in 1984. Simply put, these schools were jails for children.

Born Bad, a new documentary from CBC Docs POV, looks at the legacy of Ontario's training schools through the first-hand accounts of survivors. 

Reports of abuse

The training schools were considered to be a "total institution," said Loretta Merritt, an Ontario lawyer fighting on behalf of victims of institutional abuse. "The children were cut off from the outside world, didn't have access to their parents." Everything was in one place to meet the child's educational, spiritual, vocational and physical needs, and with the purported goal of moral and behavioural reformation.

The children lived at the school, and their families were discouraged from visiting. The schools were frequently situated in small towns, intentionally far away from the children's homes "to break down family ties," said Linda Mahood, a history professor at the University of Guelph. "They deliberately tried to separate the child from the family, so that the child would not be drawn back or drawn into what the social worker saw as a deprived or depraved family culture."

The schools were established during a time when the power of the church, police and social service agencies was fairly unchecked. Usually, applications to admit a child to a training school went through the Children's Aid Society, and it was up to a family court judge to decide if that child should be removed from their family and community and placed in a training school.

When 'bad kids' were sent away 

The justification for sending a child to training school was wide-ranging, falling under the Training Schools Act, which provided provincial judges the power to commit children under 16 and, originally, didn't require any commission of a crime. At the broadest level, the children placed in these institutions had in some way fallen afoul of their schools, communities, local authorities or their parents.

A child could be forced into a training school for truancy, ignoring curfews, underage drinking, begging or being destitute, or if they were seen to be lacking parental control. 

"These were vulnerable kids...treated like criminals" - Born Bad

1 year ago
Duration 1:40
A former child psychologist recalls his disgust at what he saw in Ontario's training schools, where young, troubled children were punished instead of cared for.

Children deemed "unmanageable or incorrigible" were detained along with those who had committed petty crimes like vandalism and shoplifting. In the thinking of the time, they were simply labelled "bad kids." 

The majority of children sent to Ontario training schools came from damaged white working-class families, according to Toronto Star investigative reporter Kenyon Wallace. Many survivors say they had alcoholic or absent parents or were sexually or physically abused, leading to emotional difficulties which caused them to act out and get into trouble.

"In a way, they were punished twice," said Mahood. "They were first punished by having an unfortunate family background, but then they were taken away from their families and victimized again."

The sentences were indeterminate — it was entirely up to the schools' administrative body to decide when to release the child back to their families. Some children were there for years. 

Not knowing when or if they were ever going to be sent home was one of the most difficult aspects of their detainment. Many children reported being told repeatedly that they were never going home, that they would remain at the school for the rest of their lives. 

For children as young as eight, this caused extreme psychological fear and trauma. Many "graduates" never reconnected with their parents or siblings after being released.

The unknown horrors of Ontario's training schools

Whatever the original intentions for the schools were, we've now heard reports they were places of great suffering. Many of the school staff had no training in how to deal with children — let alone traumatized children with behavioural problems. 

Worse still, lax hiring standards might have attracted men and women looking to sexually abuse and harm children to seek out employment in the schools, said Merritt. "Basically, people were sort of hired off the street with no experience with children, no training with children," she said. "They would have unlimited access to huge numbers of children with very little control or supervision and very little chance of the child telling anybody."

An atmosphere of terror and fear pervaded the schools, and many of the people who survived them report being scarred for life. 

"Many of them have kept these stories and this pain buried for decades," said Jonathan Ptak, the lead lawyer in a class-action lawsuit against the province of Ontario on behalf of survivors. "They've suffered a lifetime of impact. Broken marriages, lost jobs, lost families, due to the impact of the abuse that they suffered."

"You need a personal story" to show how our government failed young children in Ontario's training schools - Born Bad

1 year ago
Duration 1:34
Survivor's of Ontario's training schools are speaking out, telling their stories, to expose how the government failed them, leading to countless cases of abuse and trauma.

In need of help, not punishment

Much of the alleged abuse occurred during a time when there was little understanding of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, learning disabilities and other behavioural disorders. Many of the children sent to training schools were in need of help, not punishment. 

Mental health experts didn't understand how much emotional, physical, sexual and psychological abuse gravely impacted a child's life into adulthood until well into the 1980s. 

In most cases, the adults who allegedly abused what could be thousands of children have never been held to account, nor has the government. 

Giving them their day in court

It's estimated there are as many as 21,000 survivors of Ontario training schools, and in December 2017, the aforementioned class-action lawsuit was filed against the province, seeking $600 million in damages. 

In 2017, Kirk Keeping, who had spent two years in the training school system, consulted a Thunder Bay lawyer, alleging he had suffered abuse at one of the schools as a boy. Keeping believed the abuse had ruined his life and he finally decided to do something about it, instigating the lawsuit. 

At the time Wallace wrote an exposé about the schools, Ptak's law firm was looking more deeply into the issue and asked for survivors to come forward.

"This was state-sanctioned," said Wallace, "Ontario ran these schools. They were the responsibility of the province."

According to the class-action suit, "The training schools contained a toxic environment in which degrading and humiliating treatment of children in the Crown's care was the norm; physical, sexual and psychological abuse was rampant; and residents of the training schools were systematically denied their dignity and basic human rights." 

The lawsuit — and justice — has been delayed by 18 months due to the pandemic. The most recent schedule has the legal team entering into mediation in the fall of 2022. If the mediation fails, the trial will begin in February 2023.

Kirk Keeping died in February 2021, never receiving an apology for the alleged abuse he suffered. Born Bad is dedicated to him.

Watch Born Bad on CBC Gem.

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