Talbot House strikes back

The board of directors of Talbot House, the much admired addiction recovery center shut down this winter after the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services raised vague and, as we now know, false allegations of sexual misconduct against its executive director, today issued two news releases that add up to a sweeping condemnation of the department’s behaviour.

How the Dexter government reacts will be a major test of its integrity. Will it circle the wagons? Or will it implement real reforms?

Please read the releases for yourself here and here. [Note: I have removed contact information for the board chair.]

On the Cape Breton Regional Police Service announcement late Friday that it had found no grounds to investigate the centre’s Executive Director, the board writes:

The Board of Directors initially contacted the police in response to a report to the Board from the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, of serious allegations and complaints concerning Father Abbass. These allegations and complaints were provided to Ms. Marika Lathem, Director of Family and Youth Services with the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services, initially by the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness, and subsequently, during the course of an organizational review of Talbot House.

The Board of Directors made immediate and repeated written requests of Ms. Lathem and the Department of Community Services for the details of any allegations or complaints, or information that would allow a timely and balanced investigation of the matter, based on principles of procedural fairness and natural justice. To date, the Board of Directors has received no response and no direct complaint concerning Father Abbass. Despite our repeated requests, the Department of Community Services has provided no substantive information that would compel a formal investigation.

…Although we are pleased that Father Abbass has been vindicated of any wrongdoing, the delay in resolving this matter has resulted in an untold human cost, and was directly responsible for the series of decisions that resulted in the eventual discharge of residents from Talbot House.

Following receipt of a single, non-sexual complaint against Abbass last December, Ms. Lathem, who is Director of Family and Youth Services, launched an “organizational review” of Talbot House. Despite media requests and at least two FOIPOP requests (including one from Contrarian), the report has not been released, but according to the board’s news release, it reaches two main conclusions:

  •  “Talbot House is not operating in compliance with the majority of the Standards for Recovery Houses” and
  • “There is no evidence that the board has been actively overseeing the operation of Talbot House.”

In a telephone interview, Board chair John Gainer, a highly regarded Sydney psychologist, said the board “absolutely rejected the conclusions,” saying they were based on  a lack of proper evidence. He said the board had prepared a point-by-point rebuttal of the report that would be faxed to the department Sunday evening.

The news release is equally scathing:

The details of the report are presented as a series of “bulleted” items, many without context, elaboration, or analysis. It is the opinion of the Board of Directors of Talbot House that the review was fundamentally flawed in process and analysis, procedurally inadequate, lacked balance, and contributed to a report that contains numerous inaccuracies, and misrepresentations that, by their nature, are prejudicial, biased, and misrepresent the history, governance, and operation of Talbot House.

The board acknowledges that it was not fully complaint with the 2008 guidelines, which deal with procedural matters like job descriptions and performance appraisals, but insists, “there is ample evidence that the board was addressing these policy and operational issues in a systematic fashion.”

The news release also confirms that, even as Lathem’s vague accusations against Abbass sputtered to a halt due to lack of evidence, the department moved aggressively to ensure Talbot House would never reopen. On April 4, without advance notice to the board or any public announcement, the department retroactively terminated the centre’s funding as of April 1. Lathem told the board the department would issue a request for proposals for addiction services in Cape Breton, adding tartly that the Talbot House Society was welcome to submit a proposal.

The news release terms this action, “pre-emptive and unnecessarily punitive.” In previous years, funding was renewed automatically every April 1.

In short, the board describes a pattern of behaviour that is at once imperious and incompetent. It is a pattern many social service organizations and societies in Nova Scotia will recognize. In fact, it’s an attitude long complained of by NDP activists before the party gained power in 2009.

If even half of what the Talbot board says is true, then a searching, independent, top-to-bottom review of the Department of Community Services is long overdue.

A few background points:

— By all accounts, the Lathem report reflects a departmental penchant for placing process ahead of outcomes. Throughout this controversy, I have not heard anyone question Talbot’s success in treating addicts, many of them tough young men hooked on hard drugs.

— Many social service organizations and volunteer societies are struggling to comply with departmental guidelines requiring written policies, job descriptions, and performance reviews, and they are doing so without financial or administrative support from the department that imposed these governance requirements.

— To provide round-the-clock treatment and residential care for a rotating population of 18 men addicted to gambling, alcohol, or drugs, Talbot had a fulltime staff of six. That probably didn’t leave a lot of time for paperwork.

— Although their names may not be well known in Halifax, the Talbot Board is no random collection of hayseeds. It consists of bluechip professionals and community leaders, most of whom have distinguished records of achievement.

If Darrell Dexter treats this challenge as a political threat to be defended against with all of his government’s formidable powers of communications and institutional resistance, a great opportunity will have been missed.

On the other hand, if he sees this as an opportunity to step back and order a searching, independent review of the way social services are delivered in Nova Scotia, then some good will have come out of the disgraceful treatment accorded Fr. Paul Abbass and Talbot House,