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B.C. didn’t follow rules after report of sexual assault at healing centre

Units at Centre Creek, later transformed into the Stehiyaq Healing and Wellness Village, in Chilliwack, B.C.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

B.C.'s child-care ministry mistakenly deleted a report of an alleged sexual assault of a girl placed in an aboriginal healing centre and, when alerted to the missing file, failed to follow up with an investigation that met its own guidelines.

The alleged incident should have triggered a co-ordinated investigation by police and government agencies designed to determine what, if anything, went wrong. Instead, The Globe and Mail has learned, the B.C. Ministry of Children and Family Development mistakenly deleted an initial report of the alleged incident and, once that error was caught, failed to launch a "tripartite protocol investigation" – one that would have involved the child-care ministry, the health authority that licensed the healing centre and police.

That means the name of the person who allegedly committed the assault may not be included in ministry records. The lack of a protocol investigation is a concern even though the healing centre is no longer operating, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, said.

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"The issue here is that this was a very serious incident involving the safety of a child and potentially other children that should have been handled as a priority by the [Ministry of Children and Family Development] and wasn't," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said in an e-mail to The Globe. "As a result, an important step, the protocol investigation, did not occur."

The ministry, citing privacy legislation, says it can't comment on the specifics of any investigation. "What we can say, is that when the ministry is alerted to a safety concern within a contracted agency or funded program, the ministry co-operates fully with any investigations that may involve the agency and/or police," a ministry spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

The procedural disagreement is part of a bigger picture related to the Stehiyaq Healing and Wellness Village, an aboriginal healing centre near Chilliwack that opened in April, 2010, with about $5-million in government support.

The centre had room for up to nearly 30 clients at a time and was supposed to provide a mix of traditional and modern healing practices to aboriginal youth dealing with substance abuse or other problems. First Nations in the area spent several years lobbying for government funding to get the facility up and running. But it closed in September, 2011, after having enrolled – according to the ministry – only 15 clients.

In November, 2011, according to a delegated aboriginal agency involved, a girl who had been enrolled at the healing centre alleged she had been sexually assaulted by an employee while she was there. The delegated aboriginal agency reported that allegation to police, triggering an investigation. The agency also reported the incident to Ms. Turpel-Lafond and to the ministry.

That should have kicked off a tripartite investigation. But that initial report was deleted – possibly because it was incomplete – and the incident overlooked until Ms. Turpel-Lafond, prompted by the aboriginal agency involved, asked the ministry about the alleged assault.

The ministry then submitted a report to Ms. Turpel-Lafond's office, in March, 2012. But as far as Ms. Turpel-Lafond knows, a protocol investigation was never conducted. The ministry's actions are not believed to have had any effect on the police investigation.

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Last year, Darren Justice was charged with one count of touching, directly or indirectly, with a part of his body or with an object, a person under the age of 16 for a sexual purpose and one count of sexual assault. He is scheduled to go on trial in Chilliwack, in March. According to an indictment, the alleged incidents occurred between Aug. 1 and Aug. 31, 2011. The alleged victim's name is protected by a publication ban. Mr. Justice was a former part-time youth worker at the Stehiyaq centre.

The centre closed because it did not attract enough clients or funding to continue operations. The province says it was a partner, not the initiator, of the facility and that it advised the bands involved they would have to find additional sources of funding. For Ms. Turpel-Lafond and others, the demise of the Stehiyaq healing centre is part of a pattern of provincial investment in aboriginal child-welfare initiatives without adequate planning and support.

"These programs live and die by the number of successful referrals," Shelly Johnson, an assistant professor of social work at the University of British Columbia, said Wednesday. "If the ministry's not providing the referrals, these programs are going to die."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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