Doug’s Story – Dark past, bright future.
The Toronto Star
Before I was born, I was set up for abuse. Born in October, 1963, to a woman who had already abandoned three children to the child welfare system, I was placed for adoption into an abusive environment by the Children’s Aid Society, a sanctioned agency that is mandated to protect children. The placement could not have been more wrong.
In a time when our national news is riddled with examples of childhood abuse, when we should have the resources to provide guaranteed safe havens for children, my story must be told. It is not good enough to shake our heads, pour out a small amount of disgust, then move on to brushing our teeth before we turn out the light and forget.
Stories like mine need to be placed before our consciousness until we, as a society, take responsibility. Complacent, aging bureaucracies and under-stimulated consciences must be revitalized before more lives are lost to physical or emotional death, crime and the perpetuated cycle of abuse. The myth that we do all we can to protect children needs to be seen for what it is.
I am stepping forward ” with fear, anger and hope ” in the belief that my story can make a difference. I believe that others will relate to it, that a collective voice can make a difference and that there are good people within a decaying, top-heavy system who will muster the courage to do what they know they should.
In my case, I have learned through interviews with the Children’s Aid Society in Waterloo Region and through files received through the Freedom of Information Act that grave errors were made. I was placed poorly and monitored dismally. Later, when police investigations and child welfare intervention were necessary, both failed me.
So I pose the question: In the many situations of abuse that were part of my life, who was responsible? My adoptive parents? The child welfare system? The police? Or was it just me?
That last question, unfortunately, is what the child internalizes. Like other victims of childhood abuse, I took on the blame and the shame. Therein lies the crux of my story — that the damage done to children’s psyches and souls, in a society as liberal and as enlightened as Canada’s, is entirely preventable.
I was adopted as a 6-month-old baby. The parents chosen for me were both alcoholics. Relatives knew. Friends knew. They had also been approved for a child eighteen months previously; he was adopted as a newborn. We became brothers.
From what I have gathered within the past year, it was the most rudimentary of home studies, yet it would have been simple to unearth that my parents were alcoholics who should never have been given the gift of one child, let alone two.
Instead, case notes indicate my father was “passive but quietly friendly and congenial” and that my mother “lacked the social graces of a very feminine woman.” This man, whom the system turned into a father of two vulnerable boys, abused not only his own body, but that of his equally abusive wife. This woman, whom the system turned into a mother, abused her body, her husband and her two adopted sons.
Every day was a ritual of abuse and survival permeated by the stink of stale beer and cigarettes amid the squalor of a living room turned into my mother’s bedroom. My dad had to have a lock on his bedroom door because my mom, drunk and violent every day, would instigate fights with him.
The grind was the same: Get up, go to school, come home for lunch. We weren’t allowed to stay in the safety of the school. No, filled with the dread of what might lie ahead, we had to return to our mother at “home.” Then it was back to school and “home” again for more.
Often, my brother and I would be assigned bizarre, crazy-making chores. On one occasion, my mother made me paint the living room to cover up the beer and bloodstains on the walls from her fights with my father. Other times, I would have to roll cigarettes for her while she ran around the house yelling and screaming.
Child welfare records bring that life back hauntingly for me. When I was 6 years young, notes were made by social workers because my mother had “suffered a nervous collapse.” The child protection worker observed that “the home situation had deteriorated over the past few weeks … Mr. Dane had been drinking quite heavily and beaten his wife. She had charged him with assault.” There are notes that foster care was needed, that “the worker saw Mr. Dane as being burdened with troubles of the world” and that “Mrs. Dane had a previous mental breakdown two years earlier.”
My brother and I were placed in a foster home on a farm for the summer and part of the fall. We liked the foster parents, but missed our dog Mitzi. Case notes indicate that there were six contacts during that time — two with our father, two with our mother and two with both parents.
And then this: “Mrs. Dane returned home on Oct. 28 and the boys were returned. Mr. Dane had endeavoured to remain away from his drinking and Mrs. Dane had endeavoured to maintain some stability in trying to work out the marriage. The boys were involved in the Scout program and hockey and Sunday school. Case was closed Jan. 28, 1971.”
That was it, tidily worded and tucked away in the archives. Euphemisms work wonders! On paper.
In reality, as we advanced in age and collective misery, the daily rituals mutated into greater darkness.
After school, we’d wait, often outside because of Mom’s drunkenness, for Dad to get home from work. My brother and I would stay out long enough for Mom to pass out drunk so that we’d be able to get in the house safely.
On worse nights or on weekends, we’d sit locked in Dad’s room to be safe from Mom when she came yelling and pounding on the door. If she did get a hold of Dad, the fights would be bloody.
Police visits became the norm for our neighbourhood. Shame became my most constant companion.
‘Two boys abandoned by the agency that found a mother figure for them’
At least once a week, I ended up running away, coming back after midnight when I knew she would be passed out. At times, I stayed overnight at a safe home, with neighbours. Our neighbours were our guardian angels.
When I was 12, the Children’s Aid Society was once again called in to assist — this time by my mother. Again, they did nothing substantial to intervene and protect my brother and me.
Case notes state that she wanted information on counselling and that she “sounded very agitated, possibly inebriated. The children are finding the situation quite upsetting.”
That’s all there is: two boys abandoned by the agency that found a mother figure for them. Tokenism. A brief note to file. Case closed.
Finally, one day, I was old enough and strong enough. When I came home from school, my dad was in the basement and my mom was starting to beat on him. I put her in a headlock, carried her upstairs and threw her out the side door. Locking her out, I called the police.
As they were putting her in the cruiser, she yelled to the police and the neighbours: “My son tried to murder me.” I was 13 years old.
There was a final note on this from the child welfare agency: “Mrs. Dane’s alcoholism is getting worse and she left the home on July 8. Mr. Dane met with a worker and seemed to be looking for a way to keep her out of the home now that she had left. Mr. Dane (was) advised to seek legal counsel.”
Period. Case closed again.
With my mother gone, I could run the streets. Now a broken, sober man, my father suffered from the effects of alcoholism, bad memories of his World War II experiences, and feelings of failure as a man and a father. And so it was that I fell into the clutches of a ring of sexual predators.
Four Kitchener-Waterloo men corralled 23 boys and persuaded us that our relationship was love. That’s how desperate we were. That’s how perverted they were. Two years of abuse culminated in my kidnapping, when they took me to Halifax. I was 15.
I found my way home a week later. Soon afterwards, the police — two giants in uniform — presented what they knew and conducted a brief interview to gather more facts. Then they were gone. They didn’t talk to my father or brother. They left me alone to carry the burden of shame.
In the copies of police reports I obtained, entire sections were whited out to protect the privacy of others involved. All I could see were a few typed notes of the interview with me and vague “footprints” left by the Children’s Aid Society, the photographs that were seized, and the name of the stereo store and the Boy Scout troop the predators were involved with. (The four men were convicted on various sex charges in 1980 and received short sentences.)
More secrets, more shame!
I quit high school three times. In my heart, I knew I should stay in school, but I couldn’t do it. In spite of my high marks, I followed the path that had been laid out for me by the people who had abused me and by the authorities and professionals who had failed me.
‘I could run the streets … I fell into the clutches of a ring of sexual predators’
The next 15 years were the toughest. I tried almost every drug possible and broke free only because the altered state inflamed my feelings of inadequacy and shame. I was fortunate enough to experience the pain and paranoia caused by doing drugs, and thus saved from disappearing into the sinkhole that childhood trauma often leads to. Searching for validation through success, I worked at a number of jobs, failed at businesses, went bankrupt and finally landed on my feet. I married twice and divorced twice. The feelings of being unaccepted and unsure of myself ate away at me. Little, dark, nasty, blathering voices always danced at the back of my consciousness.
Both my parents are gone now. I have survived the loss of a mother four times: my birth mother’s abandonment, my eviction of my adoptive mother, my adoptive mother’s death from cancer two years ago and my birth mother’s unwillingness to acknowledge me as her own now.
In therapy, I have worked on dealing with my losses and the aftershock of childhood abuse. Some people who have made a difference in my life — neighbours who cared, one cop who wanted to protect abused kids, a few teachers who made an impact, and two wives and their families who were good people — were like delicate lilies along that path to healing.
Now I am successful in business and financially secure. I have found four natural siblings and my birth mother. And I am at long last beginning to see purpose in my life and to live in peace. Someone, somewhere once astutely said: “The average person tiptoes through life, hoping to make it safely to death.” Something inside me — call it what you will, soul, self, truth, God — has sometimes nudged and often propelled me along the right path.
I am in the awesome process of finding the love and the beauty in conscious living. The furtherance of my dream is that I may encourage others to tell their stories and begin to live big. I see it happening now as I speak to high school students and as I take steps to write a book, my story.
Our child welfare system in this amazing nation is out of sync with the needs of today’s society. Part of my dream is to see the agencies involved, from child welfare to the courts to police services, revamped in favour of the protection of youngsters. To do this, the system must be funded properly and managed by creative, brilliant and daring people who will walk in where angels truly have not been let loose.
It is not facile to say that our children are our future; it is unequivocally true. Once the front end of the machine, the child welfare system, is rebalanced and working smoothly and creatively, the judicial and police systems will hum along with it.
We need to offer people a safe haven where they can come forward and tell their stories and reveal the secrets that could haunt them until they die. These dark, ugly stories hold us back, leaving us suffering through a life with little self-confidence and causing us to hide in the shadows of our true selves.
We must all come to terms with our stories, whatever they are, and heal. That’s a given in life. What is not a given is the assistance of nurturing and protective people along the way.