Malice compounds DCS mishandling of the Talbot House fiasco

In a sign the Dexter government plans to tough out criticism of its handling of the Talbot House fiasco, the Department of Community Services (DCS) has posted the report of its controversial organizational review of the much admired Cape Breton addiction recovery centre.

In response, the Talbot House Society’s board of directors released a detailed, point-by-point response to the DCS report. You can read the DCS report here; the response of the Talbot House board here.

I have only had a few minutes to scan both of these documents. I am struck by how much the DCS report relies on third-party hearsay that the author, Marika Lathem, DCS Director of Family and Youth Services, accepts as factual without further verification. Even without the society’s rebuttal, it reads like a hatchet job.

Given that the CBRM Police Dept. spent eight weeks considering the department’s so-called “evidence” before concluding there were no grounds even to open a criminal investigation, it is astonishing DCS would now publish these discredited slurs. It’s as if the department were determined to undermine Fr. Paul Abbass’s vindication, despite the police department’s implicit rejection of its “evidence.” It adds up to a prima facie case of malice.

Also noteworthy is the ease with which the board dispenses with many, if not most, of Lathem’s bureaucratic procedural complaints against the society. It appears she took no greater care with easily verifiable facts than with the third-hand slurs against Fr. Abbass.

I will have more to say when I have read both documents thoroughly.

A process long on shaming and short on evidence

I am increasingly uneasy about the way the Talbot House crisis is playing out. In the space of three weeks this winter, a respected community leader’s life was shattered, and an admired institution that had ministered to troubled individuals for 53 years was abruptly closed—all on the basis of an unspecified third-party complaint of unknown veracity that remains shrouded in secrecy two months later.

[UPDATE: Fr. Paul Abbass has been exonerated. Please see Community Services Dept. vs. Talbot House]

I don’t know Fr. Paul Abbass personally, but I admire the grace and candor he displayed when speaking for the Antigonish Diocese during the crisis that followed Bishop Raymond Lahey’s arrest for possessing child pornography. I’ve only ever heard good things about Talbot House Recovery Centre, the Frenchvale addiction treatment centre Fr. John Webb founded in 1959, and where Abbass served as Executive Director for 17 13 years until his dismissal in February.

The Talbot House board asked Abbass to step down after the Department of Community Services informed it of a complaint against the priest, the nature and source of which it has not publicly revealed. The diocese relieved Abbass of his pastoral duties, and of his role as Vicar General and diocesan spokesperson.

The Cape Breton Regional Police said it had begun investigating was looking into whether information it received about a Talbot House employee it declined to identify “needs a criminal investigation. After almost two months seven weeks, it has laid no charges, suggesting that any actual criminality is uncertain.

Although the official bodies involved have been tight-lipped, Dave Mantin, Atlantic Canada group leader of an organization called Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told the Chronicle-Herald he had received two complaints about Abbass, one “sexual in nature,” and the other related to “access to medication” and “Abbass’s behaviour.”

Residents of Talbot House are adult men with addictions to alcohol, drugs, or gambling. It is not clear whether Mantin was the source of the complaint to Community Services, but it seems doubtful that the original source was the purported victim, if there was a victim, rather than a third party who disapproved of Abbass’s interactions with someone in treatment.

These events unfolded in the context of two obvious facts:

  • The history of sexual scandal in the Catholic priesthood has placed an extra burden of suspicion on any accused priest. By virtue of a category to which they belong, priests are more inclined to be presumed guilty, regardless of evidence.
  • Bishop Lahey’s conviction for possessing child pornography deprived the Antigonish Diocese of the moral authority that might have enabled it to serve as a counter-balance to the actions of Community Service in respect of an institution that, though widely respected, does not fit the Community Services Department – Maritime School of Social Work model of care.

I have no inside information, but my experience as a someone who for many years reported on issues involving the Department of Community Services, and my recent experience as a supporter and board member at l’Arche Cape Breton, do not fill me with confidence in the wisdom and fairness of that department when it comes to institutions that operate outside its preferred service delivery model.

Taken altogether, these facts and circumstances set off alarm bells for me. Specifically, I am concerned that:

  • A tip of unknown veracity from a self-appointed support group has given Community Services bureaucrats a pretext to shut down an institution they didn’t much like but couldn’t attack head on, with the result that a good organization that has helped hundreds of troubled people no longer functions and likely never will again.
  • Father Abbass has been deprived of the presumption of innocence in every practical sense. He may never be charged, let alone convicted. He may be completely innocent of the complaints against him. But in the community’s eyes, he will always carry a stigma of guilt, and his career has been shattered.
  • Concerns about privacy have enabled this process to take place entirely in secret.

We used to have a system in which serious accusations were dealt with in open court, according to rules of law that guaranteed accused persons the presumption of innocence and the right to confront their accusers. In the name of privacy, we have replaced that system with one in which an anonymous third party, of unknown motives, can level a complaint whose vague and sinister nature is made public, while all actual evidence is shrouded in secrecy, and the matter is adjudicated by anonymous officials, meeting in secret, with no public accountability.

Obviously it is possible that Fr. Abbass committed acts that are unambiguously wrong and that unquestionably render him unfit to continue with his duties. But how are we to know in the face of a process that is long on shaming and short on evidence?

Those aborted cuts – feedback

Civil Rights activist Warren Reed took the time to read the complex documents setting forth the Dexter Government’s furtive plan to slash medical benefits for residents of special care homes. The documents were posted here last night. The Dexter Government shelved the plan, which would have required residents making less than $2,000 per year to pay for needed medical supplies, dental treatments, vision care, and certain drugs including, in some cases, insulin and anti-seizure medication. The unannounced cuts, developed without consultation, were to have been implemented Canada Day, but were put on hold late Thursday after the Canadian Press wire service started asking questions of the Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse.

Reed writes:

The documents evoke the fine old days of the workhouse. I thought Dickens was dead. The whole plan is so paternalistic and antediluvian as to be worthy only of incineration. Yossarian himself would perk up at the “Policy Objectives” section, which parses into something like, “The objective is the policy and the policy is the objective.”

Unfortunately,  you have let a bit of unnecessary cliche creep into your language. As suggested below, you could have written the whole article without reference to “disabilities” (proposed deletions highlighted in yellow). 

By reminding the reader that the policy merely affects the “disabled” you plant the thought that these people are different from us. They are us.

Warren has a point, though I think he carries it one step too far. That this policy would have applied only to Nova Scotians with disabilities is a pertinent fact readers ought to know. It’s not just a mean policy, but a discriminatory one that targets a group of Nova Scotians ill-equipped to stick up for their rights. Alas, having made that point, I then slipped into the common error of repeatedly defining the affected people by their disability. Warren is right. They are not “the disabled.”

They are us.

Media call averts stealth cuts to medical benefits for Nova Scotians with disabilities

The Nova Scotia Department of Community Services (DCS) backed off a clandestine plan to cut medical services for disabled Nova Scotians living in special care homes late Friday Thursday afternoon, hours before it was to take effect.

The province had planned to implement the unannounced cuts over the Canada Day long weekend, but shelved the plan hours after the Canadian Press News Agency sought comment from DCS Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse. Operators of special care homes were told the policy was “on hold” in late afternoon emails from frontline care coordinators.

The policy would have curtailed coverage for a wide range of medical benefits including dental care, drugs, and medical supplies.

In one case, workers caring for an elderly diabetic who receives a living allowance of just $125 per month were told his daily insulin injections would no longer be covered, because the type of insulin prescribed for his hard-to-control blood-sugar levels is not on a list of approved drugs. The man, who has a developmental handicap, leads an active life and is beloved by his community.

Another agency was told the province would no longer pay for an anti-seizure medication required by one of its residents.

The new policy would have required pre-approval for most items, including annual dental cleanings. It was developed without consultation with caregivers, operators of special needs homes, or the disabled residents themselves. Frontline DCS workers were still receiving training in the new restrictions as late as yesterday.

Governments often choose to announce controversial measures as holiday weekends are getting underway. In this case, the department didn’t announced the planned cuts at all, although it did find time Wednesday to issue a news release trumpeting increased payments to welfare recipients, also set to take place July 1.

Tipped to the new policy by a mainland organization that operates several special care homes, Canadian Press sought comment from Peterson-Rafuse. She was unavailable, as were all of her key officials. Notoriously sensitive to bad publicity, the Dexter Government closely monitors media requests, with responses tightly controlled from the premier’s office.

The CP inquiry apparently set off alarm bells. At 3:54 p.m., Friday Thursday, a DCS official emailed a dozen operators of special care homes in Cape Breton a one-line email: “Sorry. We just got an email saying that this is now on hold. Continue as we have been.”

DCS coordinators had earlier been told not to let operators of special needs homes see copies of the seven highly technical documents that spell out the new policy. Contrarian obtained copies this evening, and we have posted them to our website:

Politics, proprieties, and protection

Being a cabinet minister requires adroit balancing skills. On one hand, a minister sometimes performs duties that border on the judicial, and must do so impartially. On the other, a minister has political responsibilities to the governing party and its allies.

DenisePetersonRafuse-200To judge from her public comments about an impending investigation into allegations of abuse at group homes operated by the Colchester Residential Services Society, Community Services Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse has an imperfect grasp of both roles.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union complained that managers of the Colchester homes had failed to react, or failed to react quickly enough, to violent attacks by residents against other residents and against unionized staff.

Department officials looked into the complaint and reported to Peterson-Rafuse, who ordered a formal investigation under the Protection of Persons in Care Act. The act gives the minister broad powers to protect residents and patients at special care homes, including the power to compel production of records and issue binding directives on the homes.

Shannon McLellan, director of the non-profit society, said the organization would “co-operate fully with all audits and investigations.”

“We consider these to be useful processes,” she added in a written statement. “We look forward to any recommendations that will help us do our job better.”

So far so good. The responsible department receives a complaint of violent attacks against vulnerable citizens; an expedited inquiry finds the complaints worthy of detailed investigation; the responsible minister orders such an investigation; the operator of the homes in question pledges full co-operation.

Then the minister saw fit to speak to the Canadian Press:

Peterson-Rafuse said in an interview she was informed of injuries and abuse earlier this week after her assistants met with representatives of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union.

“Upon completion of that meeting, I was informed of what was going on and requested a full investigation be put in place by the department,” she said.

Here Peterson-Rafuse oversteps her role, referring to “what was going on” when all she has are allegations the department deemed worthy of further investigation. Finding out “what was going on” is a key part of the investigation, a task the minister should not taint by appearing to prejudge its outcome.

CP reporter Mike Tutton confronted Peterson-Rafuse with Worker’s Compensation records purporting to show 38 violence-related workplace injuries at the society’s five homes over the last five years — a rate of about 1.5 incidents per home per year.

Peterson-Rafuse said the injury rates at the provincially funded, non-profit agency are too high, and she expects the investigation will find out what is happening.

“To me, that sounds like an awful lot of people getting injured. Your life circles around being able to do your job and being able to support your family and one injury can take that away from you,” she said.

There are two problems with this.

First, by proclaiming that injury rates at the homes are too high, and speculating about the personal consequences of those injuries, the minister is again pre-judging the results of a quasi-judicial process she ordered and for which she bears ultimate responsibility.

Second, Workers Compensation stats relate to injuries incurred on the job — injuries to employees, in other words, not to residents or patients in care. In my reading of the Protection of Persons in Care Act and regulations, investigations like the one the minister ordered can only look into abuse directed at residents, not staff. Unless the investigator strays beyond the mandate set forth in the act, the investigation will not “find out what it happening” to union workers.

The Colchester Residential Services Society is entitled to fair treatment, and this entitlement is no mere technicality. The departmental official designated to carry out this investigation will know that the minister has, in effect, already declared that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. That official may be reluctant to buck this presumption, regardless of what her investigation turns up.

Viewed through a political lens, Peterson-Rafuse’s performance doesn’t look any better. The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union has long allied itself with the Nova Scotia New Democratic Party. Now that the NDP is in government, the union enjoys unaccustomed sympathetic access to ministers and their staff.

Nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with the minister ordering an investigation based on a union complaint, assuming the appropriate inquiry by the appropriate department staff found grounds for further investigation. But Peterson-Rafuse apparently thought it clever to reinforce her decision with public comments sympathetic to the union’s position.

That was dumb. The union already had what it wanted: an investigation. Playing footsie in public offered little additional political gain. On the contrary, it risked political damage. Rightly or wrongly, voters wary of union influence over the NDP will feel reinforced in their suspicions. If the investigation comes down hard on the Colchester society, the minister’s imprudent comments may raise doubts about its evenhandedness. This is the kind of thing Darrell Dexter scrupulously avoided as Opposition Leader, and that’s part of the reason he’s premier.

On both the proprieties and the politics of this case, the minister is 0 for 2.