Published Saturday, November 3, 2012 1:00PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, December 13, 2012 11:21AM EST
On a windswept hillside on the outskirts of Halifax stands what many call the house of horrors. Opened in 1921, it is the original site of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.
It was supposed to be a symbol of caring and protection for orphaned and abandoned black children. Instead it has become what many believe is ground zero of a devastating and historic cover-up spanning several decades.
Approximately 100 survivors, united in their childhood suffering, are speaking out for the first time about the horrific mental, physical and sexual abuse they suffered while in the home. They have launched a class action lawsuit seeking redress for years of neglect, and are waiting for the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia to certify it.
Opening of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, Preston, N.S., June 6, 1921. (Photo courtesy: Helen Creighton)
Former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, from left, Gerry Morrison, Stacey Beals, Robert Borden, Harriet Johnson, Tracey Dorrington, Tony Smith, Paul Carvery.
Documents related to the proposed class action lawsuit against the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children are shown at the law offices of Raymond F. Wagner in Halifax.
Their tragic stories are contained in affidavits dating back to the 1920s, compiled by the Halifax law firm of Raymond F. Wagner and viewed by W5’s investigative team.
According to Wagner, the documents show that incidents of abuse aren’t confined to the memories of the alleged victims. He claims they were documented and ignored by the Home and the Nova Scotia government.
“They knew what was going on but they wanted to play possum and pretend that they didn’t know so that nobody will be able to come back on them at a later point in time,” said Wagner.
The most damning and disturbing document – a major incident report prepared by the Home, quoting in part a Children’s Aid social worker, and obtained by W5 involves the alleged brutal rape of a 14-year-old girl that occurred on June 6, 1983. The alleged rape by a staff member was reported to Veronica Marsman, a supervisor at the home who carried out a “thorough investigation” of the allegation which was forwarded to the board.
According to the major incident report, the board of directors suspended George Williams, a child care worker and driver. They also suggested “he be dismissed outright.” The board also discussed “that perhaps the police should be notified and that George be put in jail for his actions.”
However, the board decided that this “idea” . . . “be shelved” pending further investigation.
The girl, who was taken to hospital and, according to Wagner, received 18 stitches, was eventually transferred to another group home and the police were never notified.
George Williams was dismissed and sometime later was hired by a nearby day care centre as a bus driver. He was suspended from the day care last year when information about the alleged rape became public.
The alleged rape victim has declined to be part of the class action suit. She wants to protect her privacy. But 13 other women are involved in the proposed class action suit claiming the home and the province did not protect them from alleged sexual abuse by Williams when they were children.
Veronica Marsman lived in the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children in the 1960s for two years when she was a child and has fond memories of her time there. She is now the executive director of the organization which is now based in two newer buildings just down the road from the old home. It’s now a short-term residence for children of all races.
In an exclusive interview with W5, Marsman was asked about the alleged 1983 rape, at which time she was one of the supervisors at the home. She claimed: “I’m not even clear if I even knew exactly what did take place.”
During the W5 interview, Marsman added that she was not saying she wasn’t aware of William’s dismissal over the alleged rape but “there’s more details to the actual circumstances that I’d like to go back and review. That’s been several years now. Many years.”
Williams wasn’t the only alleged predator in the home.
Tracy Dorrington recently summoned the courage to tell her story of rape and abuse while at the home in an interview with W5. Her alleged assailant, she says, was a man called Herbert Desmond.
“He threw me up against the wall. I tried to fight him off. And I knew I couldn’t get him off me. He was just too strong and he raped me.” Tracy was about 14 years old at the time.
Asked if she ever told anyone at the home about the alleged assault, Tracy replied: “I was scared to tell” because she was told by her attacker “No one is ever going to believe you. You’re a tom boy, you’re ugly. Who the hell is going to believe you?”
In the late 1990s, Tracy confided in Jane Earle, a social worker and former volunteer director of the home, about the abuse.
Tracy asked Jane to set up a meeting with the board so she could tell her story.
“She didn’t want money. She didn’t want to go to the police. She just wanted them to know so that no other child would suffer like she had,” Jane said in an interview.
To their shock and dismay, Jane says the board refused to meet with Tracy.
In affidavits filed with the court, Tracy and other past residents are suing the home claiming sexual and emotional abuse by Desmond.
Years later, Desmond left the home and ended up as an officer at the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. He went on an extended leave in April when the allegations of abuse were made public. He retired from the commission in late October. Almost 20 victims are alleging physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Williams and Desmond, and claim the home and the Nova Scotia government knew and did nothing about it.
Both men declined repeated requests to be interviewed. However Desmond has previously denied the allegations against him to a local reporter.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Jane Earle says former residents deserve justice for decades of alleged abuse at a government funded institution. She told W5, “A public inquiry should be held. So that they have a chance to publicly talk about what was done to them and how it’s ruined their lives.”