When the Safe House Isn’t Safe: Abuse of Children in Care

childhood sexual abuse survivor being comforted by a sexual abuse lawyer

A loving, supportive foster parent can provide a child with a sense of stability, security and safety that may have been completely absent from their life before coming into care.

In recent decades, Ontario’s Children’s Aid Societies have made great some strides in developing systems to train, support and monitor people who have decided to become foster parents or foster resource persons for minors who are temporarily or permanently removed from an unsafe living situation.

But the lessons learned to get us to this point have been painful and traumatic. Far too many vulnerable children lived in foster homes or group homes for periods of time in the latter half of the 20th century where they experienced physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse. Today, as adults, they look back at their time in care and ask why a system purportedly designed to protect them from harm failed them.

In this blog post, I discuss some common themes in the Children’s Aid Society (CAS)/foster home sexual abuse cases we’ve worked on at Jellinek Ellis Gluckstein. I identify the types of clients and cases we generally see, explain why these cases must be handled so sensitively, and outline how we investigate these cases in order to determine if there is a viable path for a survivor of abuse to make a civil claim for damages.

Who Is Coming Forward With CAS Abuse Claims?

All children/minors are vulnerable to the degree that they are not expected to be able to support themselves independently from a parent or guardian. Fortunately, while these parents or guardians are never perfect, the vast majority of them can provide a minimum level of physical, emotional and financial security so that a child in their care has a reasonably strong foundation to support their growth and development.

In cases where social workers and courts determine that a child’s basic needs are not being met competently or consistently, the child may be temporarily placed into the care of kin (another family member, relation or person known to the child) or a dedicated foster parent/family/resource person.

The goal of Ontario’s Children’s Aid Societies is to help children in care return to their original home whenever possible. In the event it is determined that this return is not possible, the child may become a ward of the court and placed in longer-term fostering environments or considered for adoption.

Although there is now a greater awareness of our society’s duty to report suspected child abuse and reporting structures designed to protect a child if their they come forward on their own with an allegation of abuse, frequently abuse does not come to light until many years after it has occurred. Often, survivors only report their abuse after they have established physical, emotional and financial independence from an abusive person, home, or institution.

As a result, the vast majority of abuse cases that our firm investigates involve adults who suffered abuse as children (with many incidents of abuse dating from the 1960s to 1990s). Currently, our firm is working on numerous claims relating to abuse that occurred in foster homes that hosted Indigenous children who were part of the Sixties Scoop.

A majority of the people who contact us for an free initial consultation about a sexual abuse claim dating from the period they were in foster care suffered the abuse in a foster home. Most often, the abuse was at the hands of a foster parent.

However, institutional abuse in group homes has also resulted in many claims. If the abuse experienced by a survivor was at the hands of a foster sibling, the biological child of a foster parents, or another person who had access to the foster home, there is still potential to advance a claim, however it can sometimes come with additional challenges.

Many of the people who contact us are at a point when they are ready to take action against the person(s) or institution that harmed them. Some of them have come to this decision after time in counselling or therapy. Others, who have self-medicated in order to manage their pain, have reached a point of sobriety that permits them to focus on healing. And, still others have simply decided that a civil claim for damages against their abuser will help them achieve a sense of justice being done.

What Do Survivors Ask Us And/or Tell Us?

When abuse is historic (occurring in the distant past), many survivors question whether court action is even possible. Ontario does not have a statute of limitations for civil claims involving allegations of childhood sexual abuse. Even if the person who perpetrated the abuse is no longer living, a claim can still be made against their estate (if they have been deceased less than two years) and/or against the Children’s Aid Society involved in facilitating the foster care placement.

When it comes to foster parent abuse (as with other types of familial abuse), survivors are frequently apologetic if they are still in contact with their abuser. There is absolutely nothing to apologise for. The foster parent-foster child relationship was often very important to the survivor, no matter how horrendous it was.

Some survivors of sexual abuse are also often worried about losing a sense of control over the matter once they come forward. For instance, they worry they may change their mind about going forward with a claim if they discover they aren’t able to deal with the emotions that may come to the fore.

At Jellinek Ellis Gluckstein, we always prioritize our clients’ well-being and ensure they retain control over the ultimate decision-making involved in a case. In criminal abuse investigations and criminal charges, the survivor assumes the role of a witness. In contrast, in civil actions the survivor is a plaintiff who decides if and when to make a claim, whether to continue with a claim if their personal circumstances change, and whether to accept a settlement offer from the defendant(s).

What Does a Sexual Abuse Lawyer’s Investigation Entail?

During a no cost, no obligation initial consultation with a Jellinek Ellis Gluckstein sexual abuse lawyer, we listen attentively and empathetically to your story. We always believe survivors. After answering any preliminary questions you may have about the process involved in advancing a claim, we will explain your rights and various options.

If you choose to pursue a civil claim and we believe we can help you obtain a settlement or court award, we will gladly offer to become your legal representative and advocate.

Before filing a claim, we must conduct a thorough investigation. The vast majority of sexual assault claims against the CAS and/or individual perpetrators are settled out of court and before trial precisely because of the work we do on the front end of a file. We collect and review relevant documentary evidence and build a persuasive case to support the claim, including the CAS file, school and medical records, employment and income documents. In addition, we will contact potential witnesses to corroborate evidence.

A surprising number of lawyers who make claims against the CAS in foster parent abuse cases don’t name the foster parents as defendants.

Not only do we believe that an abusive foster parent should be named in a claim whenever possible, but taking this step also allows us to request access to a foster family file that would may not otherwise be available. This file may include information about previous complaints or concerns about the foster home, whether the foster home was shut down at any point, and the thoroughness of the home study used as a basis to open the foster home in the first place.

Other potential sources of evidence include:

  • The foster child’s file. (Was there a sudden decline in the child’s school performance evident on report cards? Did a caseworker report the unexpected onset of bed wetting? Was there a lack of investigation into these or other warning signs of potential abuse?)
  • Counselling/therapy records for the plaintiff. (Did the survivor, as a child or adult, discuss elements of this abuse explicitly in sessions or otherwise present as someone potentially suffering from the traumatic effects of abuse?)
  • The accounts of other people who knew the survivor at the time the abuse was taking place or who may have known about the abuse. (Foster siblings or biological siblings in the foster home may have experienced abuse themselves or may be able to corroborate details in a survivor’s memories).

Since abuse, and particularly sexual abuse, is often committed in private settings, the survivor’s own memories are often critical pieces of evidence in a case. By examining the scope of these memories in detail, we aim to establish the survivor as a credible source. It’s important to note, however, that as we conduct our investigation, we must carefully distinguish between memories that have been retained since the time of the abuse and memories which may have been recovered through specific practices in therapy.

Not every survivor will ultimately bring a claim against the CAS and/or their abuser. Sometimes, after beginning the investigation process, a survivor will opt to pause or end their participation. In other cases, despite our best investigatory efforts, there simply is not enough evidence available to make a viable claim. Yet, even in these instances, you can be confident that we will offer whatever help we can as you continue your healing journey.

Help When You’ve Been Hurt.

Working with survivors to successfully build a case against their abuser (and/or the institution whose negligence facilitated the abuse) has been one of the most rewarding parts of my legal practice. I am continually amazed by the ability of these survivors to persevere through unimaginably difficult circumstances and come through the other side.

The institutions we built and trusted to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society failed these survivors. But, in supporting these survivors as they seek justice for the wrongs done to them, we have played a role in bringing about institutional change to Children’s Aid Societies that may spare countless other children from experiencing abuse at the hands of the very people whose job it is to provide a safe home for them.

Coming forward to speak about the abuse you’ve suffered is never easy, but the compassionate, caring and trauma-informed sexual abuse lawyers at Jellinek Ellis Gluckstein do our utmost to ensure you feel supported, validated and, above all, heard. Contact me to learn more about what our firm can do for you.


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