As a child advocacy center, Toba Centre is working to expand their mandate to provide a circle of care, ensuring a team of experts provide safety, justice and healing for children who have suffered from abuse. And that’s why I’m proud to partner with Toba Centre on their #TobaCircleOfCare campaign to raise awareness.
– Desiree Scott
I’ve seen how
a child responds
Jeff’s story of abuse begins when he is 11 years-old, back in the 1980s. His journey for justice in the courts occurred in the 1990s, and his path to healing continues today.
Now that Jeff is in his 40’s, with children of his own, he has chosen to share his story to encourage others who have lived with similar challenges. But also to point out how our traditional system is failing children who have been abused, so that as a community we can do a better job of supporting families–to help them be resilient in face of terrible trauma, so they can heal and keep families together.
Today, Toba Centre is listening to stories like Jeff’s to envision how we can better meet the needs of our community.
My story begins with my well-intentioned dad looking to find a coach for my hockey team. My dad asked a good friend of his, someone who had coached many other teams, and was well-liked and well-respected in the community. Over the years he and his family became intertwined with my family, sharing holidays together, celebrating birthdays and milestones. It was normal for me to see him on a daily basis.
When the abuse first happened I was 11 years old, and I can recall every minute and detail of that day just like it was yesterday.
After that first time, he would go on to abuse me several more times in a variety of settings.
It was devastating. I could feel myself changing from a happy-go-lucky kid to a more introverted one, and even became a bit more rebellious. I knew there was something wrong, that what I was experiencing was not normal but I couldn’t talk about it. It made me confused and angry. As I got older I started to distance myself from him, and was able to make up excuses so that I could avoid being alone with him. This was difficult because he was still a family friend and would visit our home regularly.
When I graduated from high school and started university I knew something was not right with me. There were always these terrible thoughts in my head, and at age 22 I finally told someone that I had been sexually abused. While telling the truth was a huge relief to me, it didn’t make everything okay, and I knew it was not the answer I was looking for.
In high school I had not really been interested in drinking and partying because I was afraid of losing control. Now that I had told the truth and it was ‘out,’ those fears went to the wayside. I started to drink and party thinking this would help wash away the terrible thoughts I continued to have.
Over a short period of time I reached out to several close friends to let them know about the abuse, hoping to find an answer, or help, something that would help me to move past it.
Eventually it felt like the right time to go outside my circle of friends and let my parents know. By this time, my mom had already figured it out and said she didn’t want to push me to talk about it. Her support was vital to me. Telling my dad took more strength. I was afraid that in telling the truth that I would destroy our relationship, that we would lose each other, and that I would be taking away his best friend. It was complicated, and it’s still very hard to talk about.
After many conversations I decided to seek legal advice from a family friend who was a lawyer. He provided options to pursue civil litigation or to press criminal charges.
I decided to go ahead with a civil case. I felt that this way had an advantage, that I could keep the case private, that I wouldn’t have to tell my story over and over, and that I could still get the help I needed. Most of all though, this path would mean that I wouldn’t have to testify in a courtroom with him being there. However, I didn’t realize that I would have to tell my story to more people outside of my circle, including a psychiatrist and doctors.
With all of this going on I coped in the only way that seemed available to me. I started to drink more. When the civil judgment came through I did get some money through the settlement, but to be honest it didn’t feel like a win. I got money, but he didn’t have to admit any wrongdoing, and he didn’t have to get help for his issues. The civil ‘win’ didn’t accomplish anything. It felt like dirty money. What it did allow me to do was to drink more and party harder.
During this turmoil, I reached out to several people who I thought I could trust. People in leadership positions, a parish priest and a former teacher I was close to. I only found out years later, that both the priest and teacher were subsequently charged with sexual offences against minors. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up! It was just unbelievable. The teacher actually blamed me for his crime. He said that by me telling him my story of abuse, it brought up his own past and made him become an offender!
The force of this accusation weighed heavily on my shoulders. I couldn’t help but think of his victims and the lives impacted by his abuse. I really didn’t know how to cope.
Then one day my dad called me at work and said he needed me to come home immediately. I could tell something was up so I brought a friend with me. When we drove up to my parent’s house I knew right away, before we even went in the front door, that my life was about to change. There were several cars in the driveway and one of them was a police car.
When I went in the house it was like an intervention that you might see on TV. It turns out that there were rumours in the community about the abuse. Gathered in my parents house was one of my dad’s friends, an official from the local hockey organization, and two police officers. They all talked to me and wanted to know what had happened. When they were done talking I immediately excused myself and went to the next room to phone my lawyer who gave me advice and provided options. I then went back to the room, politely declined to speak, and told them I was leaving. I had listened, and now I needed to think.
After a week or so of sleepless nights and talking with a few friends about it, I realized I couldn’t stop thinking about it. One day, in the middle of my university class I just got up and left. I went straight to the police station unannounced, and asked for a police officer I could speak with. I then poured my heart out for a few hours telling them everything that had happened. This was by far the most I had ever shared, and details I had never previously revealed. It was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. Now the whole story was out, and definitely out of my hands.
In a criminal case you put all of your faith into getting a conviction. I spent hours talking to the detectives and building trust and rapport with them. Suddenly those relationships are gone as they send their report to the crown attorney. Then I had to build a new rapport with experts like doctors, crown attorneys, and psychiatrists as we prepared to go to court. We put all of our effort and faith into the system looking for the validation of a conviction. I wanted and expected justice and thought it would all be worth it in the end.
When the trial phase was over, I found myself mentally drained as we waited to hear the verdict. I had no real outlet for personal help and healing, and so I leaned on my friends, and went drinking to create some sense of normalcy for myself.
Finally, the verdict came, the court case ended, and he was found not guilty.
I was devastated.
Change is Needed – Safety, Justice & Healing is a Journey
The journey to justice didn’t end the way that I hoped. But this isn’t the only reason I feel like the system failed me, and others who are victims of child sexual abuse. Remember that I did this all while being an adult. I cannot imagine how a child or a parent of a young child can navigate the system without proper support in place.
When the verdict is finally read, and the case is over, it feels like you have been abandoned–the detectives were gone, the doctors were gone, the crown attorneys were gone. I was left to deal with the devastation all on my own. At the time you think you have support in place with family and friends, but actually they are no more equipped to deal with the trauma than you are. If you do not get a guilty verdict you spend a lot of time questioning who believes you and it creates a constant doubt in your mind.
The energy and focus of the current system is really on the abuser. After a court case concludes, for many people engaged in the trial process – their work is done. But the legal process is only one step on the victim’s journey in dealing with abuse. And the hardest part, that of healing, is really just beginning for victims and their families.
The current system is not survivor friendly. Toba Centre has a vision to provide wrap around services, a circle of care that helps families and survivors understand the convoluted path to justice, and support them on a journey of healing–to what we hope is a brighter future.
Don Smith, Toba Centre’s Board Chair, is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Don’s story of abuse started when he was 9 years old, back in the 1960s when there wasn’t even language to describe what was happening to him. It was only when he was in his early 30’s, working as a probation officer and delivering adolescent sexual offenders treatment programs, that he could finally identify and call out the abuse for what it was. It was then that his journey of healing could begin.
Personally inspired, Don’s path of healing has seen him work for 30 years to build resources and capacity for other victims of abuse to recover and heal. His work has been a remarkable contribution to our community, and Toba Centre is fortunate to have his leadership as its mandate grows to offer wrap-around services for families in need.
After University, at age 21, I got my first career job with Probation Services working with juvenile delinquents (as they were called in 1980). Even though the kids were only three to seven years younger than me, I found working with youth to be extremely rewarding. That job was with a specialized unit, but it was eventually shut down and I was transferred to a regular probation office. I soon got bored and was looking for more of a challenge to meet the intensity of my previous position. So they offered me a caseload working with adolescent sex offenders. This was an interesting group, young people that were hurting others, so clearly because of various abuses they suffered in their own childhoods. Some told us so, others, we just knew. At one point we ran a two-year cognitive behavioral therapy group program, partnering with Child and Family Services, to help these youth manage their behavior.
We started that program when I was about 30 years old, in the early 1990s and a lot of work was being done at that time to define and explain victimization. As a part of that group we had the youth talk about their past experiences, helping them to understand where their behavior came from, including disclosures of their own victimization. In this group, there was a young boy, maybe age 13, who told us about his older male cousin and the things that had been done to him. As I’m telling this young boy that his experience is defined as sexual abuse, inside my own head, bells are going off. In the middle of this group session, my mind is blowing up as I realize that this youth was telling my own story. I was the victim of this same behavior by my own male cousin.
I was numb, but my mind was racing as this moment triggered a bombardment of memories. I hadn’t suppressed the memories, but rather had a different interpretation of the events. I don’t think I said another word throughout that session. At the end of it my co-facilitators asked if I was okay. I told them I wasn’t, because I just realized that I too had been sexually abused as a child. There was no doubt, a voice in my head was screaming “IT WAS SEXUAL ABUSE.”
It is a remarkable experience to suddenly have your whole life, up to that moment, reflected back at you with a new lens of awareness. It wouldn’t come all at once, but over time I would see how the abuse changed me and affected how I could trust others, my history of interpersonal relationships and how I avoided intimacy and showing affection to people I love. Hugs were extremely uncomfortable for me, even to this day.
When abuse is actually happening, children don’t necessarily have the capacity or language to understand what is going on. They don’t even know that it’s wrong. When my abuse happened in the 1960s, there were no words for it, and no one in society talked about it. When you can finally name it and understand how that abuse has damaged you, it’s only then that you can begin to heal and undo the damage. You can’t heal what you don’t know is injured.
That night, after the workshop, my co-workers and I went out for drinks and I talked and talked, telling my life story with a new understanding of what I had lived through.
Honestly, up until that point I believed that what my cousin had done to me was just boys being boys, that it was normal for older boys to teach younger boys about sex in this way. My abuse continued from when I was 9 to 14 years of age, and it ended when he attempted to touch me and I told him “we’re not doing this anymore.” I had outgrown him physically, and in retrospect, emotionally, and at that point, somehow, somewhere found the courage to stand up for myself.
Understanding myself in this new light, in my 30’s, was very powerful, but it was also difficult. I felt like I couldn’t do my work anymore, and I was afraid that I would lose my job. And I was in a difficult place in my marriage as well. My abuser was my cousin and so he was still in my life, and I continued to see him at family gatherings. For people going through something like this it’s hard to know where to turn for help. It was very stressful to see him interact with his child.
Part of my healing began with telling my wife. That didn’t go very well; she had no capacity, knowledge or point of reference to understand what I was going through at that time and as a child. All she saw, I think, was an angry, distant man. Shortly thereafter we separated, and then it was time to tell my immediate family.
Telling my family was difficult. As I told my story I could tell it was painful for them to hear it. But, I was believed! This was so important. Thinking about it now, having their support was no surprise. My parents are the type that their kids and grandkids can do no wrong. I realize now how critical that support was for my healing. It was no longer my issue, it was our issue. It was no longer me dealing with it, it was we, and as we moved forward it was US against the world. I can’t overstate how important it is to have a support group that surrounds you with care and love. Healing can’t happen in isolation, it requires truth and a support team.
Their belief in me gave me the courage to begin telling my extended family, but sadly, most of them didn’t believe me. A couple of uncles visited and asked me what I wanted to get out of this. I told them I wanted my abuser, my cousin, to get assessed so he could take responsibility for what he did, but also so he could get help. He wouldn’t agree to this and I lost my extended family as a result of my disclosure. They sided with my cousin, my abuser. And because he wouldn’t take the offer of an assessment, I had to follow through and take it to the next level to find justice.
My next step was to go to the police to press charges, and I told my story in front of a camera for evidence. The sergeant I worked with was very respectful and very compassionate. He confirmed that my experience was abuse and that my cousin would be charged.
When I left the police station that day, I felt free.
The opportunity to tell my story, my truth, even though it was 20 years after the fact, was so important. Having the behavior confirmed to be abuse was a validation that I needed. When I look back on my life, it all made sense now in a way that it hadn’t before. I realized that my thoughts, and the things I was afraid of were the result of being sexually abused. It made sense now that I had been damaged as opposed to being damaged. It wasn’t my fault that I was messed up! With this new found knowledge, I could finally begin to heal.
When the truth about abuse is told, then the healing process can begin. It’s messy though, and especially with my family, there have been plenty of ups and downs but they stuck with me. I didn’t lose my job, I continued to work. And my experience has made me a lot more compassionate with the kids and adults I’ve worked with. Three years later, I left Probation Services and started my own practice, working with individuals and families trying to cope with sexual abuse.
Looking back, I realize one of my main motivators in the work that I do is educating people. Today it might seem odd to some people that you have to explain what sexual abuse is, but the reality is it can happen in many ways and often from people that we trust. I want people to understand that when abuse happens, we need to be there for the victim, to hear them, to believe them.
Sexual abuse thrives in darkness of ignorance. When we don’t talk about, and don’t name it, we can’t stop it. As adults, it’s our responsibility to know what sexual abuse is, and to believe our children. It’s critical for their healing. Even if an adult tells you their story, take the time to listen and believe them. It’s unfathomable to me why someone would make something like this up, there is nothing to gain from identifying one’s own source of shame, unless it’s real.
I’ve been on my own path of healing for 30 years. As the Board Chair for Toba Centre for Children & Youth, I believe in our expanding mandate to provide wrap-around services for victims of child abuse and their families. I envision a new state-of-the-art education centre where we train social workers, police, hospital staff, and others. Through social media and other platforms, educating the public, and making it more comfortable and normal to have discussions about sexual abuse. It’s hard to talk about, but we have to do it. For me, this is a legacy project that will serve our community and provide safety, justice and healing for our children.
Part of our Circle:
Toba Centre Board Member
Co-Founder, Respect Group
President, R.G. Evans Indigenous Solutions
President, Johnston Group Inc.
Toba Centre Board Chair
President, Munro Group
My assessment of all things that have led to the evolution of children’s welfare up to this point has been, in my eyes, negative. But they’re needed. And i think if you can have an influence in being able to sit with them, on these issues, it needs to be for the benefit of the child. Not the benefit of your entity, or your organizations, or yourself. It’s for the benefit of the child. So I’m excited about what Christy is doing here. She has such an opportunity to guide the system in a new way. I’m privileged right now to be able to be part of something that’s developing for the good of our children. I have such a bright light that hits me when i think about the development.