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More on Wanda Young
February 12, 2006 permalink
CTV has an in-depth story on the case of Wanda Young, victim of a false allegation. It is the story of a wolf devoured by wolves, using the same methods they ordinarily use on sheep. The story traces the steps by which an unfounded allegation leads to total ruin for the victim. Thanks to an alert reader for finding this article.
Cloud of Suspicion
W-FIVE Staff, Updated: Sat. Feb. 11 2006 7:14 PM ET
In 1992, Wanda Young was a student at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. Wanda had always wanted to be a social worker and help abused children. She had been going part time to Memorial and wanted to be accepted into full time studies in Social Work Department.
It was a big dream for a girl from Spaniard's Bay, a small out port about eighty-five kilometers from St. John's. Her father Gordon Young is a cabinetmaker and her mother Barbara once worked in the local fish plant. Wanda is the middle child in this large close-knit family and ever since she was small she had one thing in mind — to become a social worker. When she told her father she intended to pursue her dream, he wasn't surprised. "She was cut from that cloth, says Gordon, "that's what she wanted to be."
For Wanda, being a social worker was more than just a career — it was her vocation. "I just felt in my heart and soul that I had something that I could do for these kids. I don't know, I just wanted to help them out in any way I could." recalls Wanda.
In 1994, after four years of university courses, her marks were slightly below the admission rate of 65 per cent and the competition for placement was high — she didn't get in. So she went to the head of admissions and asked her what she should do. Her advice floored Wanda. "It was at this point where she told me that they didn't think I had what it takes to be a social worker. And if I wanted to pursue a career in social work she would have to ask me to go elsewhere." But there was nowhere else in the province for Wanda to go. Hurt and confused she left the meeting in tears — and left behind her dream of a career in social work for good.
What Wanda didn't know was the university falsely suspected her of sexually abusing children.
Wanda had written a twelve-page term paper about juvenile sex offenders. The last two pages contained an appendix entitled "Case Study", a graphic and lurid account written by an actual teenage sex offender who would molest the children she babysat. Wanda had taken it word- for- word from a textbook, but she had forgotten to add a footnote.
She had written the paper for a long distance course taught by a social work professor, who was away on a research project in Labrador. The teacher was Professor Leslie Bella. When she read the appendix to Wanda Young's paper, alarm bells rang. She thought Wanda was writing about her own life. "There was attached to the paper was a first-person confession to being a child sexual abuser written by a young woman who was abusing her children in her care, says Professor Bella, "there was no reference, no citation indicating where it was taken from."
Professor Bella felt the suspected confession could well be a cry for help from Wanda. So she consulted her director, Professor Bill Rowe. Professor Rowe is a leading expert on child abuse. He contacted Newfoundland's Child Protection Services to warn them about Wanda Young. He then wrote a letter suggesting the RCMP investigate. But he didn't send the entire 12 pages — he only attached the alarming Case Study, which read like a confession.
But nobody from the RCMP or Newfoundland's Child Protection Services called Wanda. And when Professor Bella contacted her, it was on an entirely different subject. Professor Bella called Wanda and suggested that she had self-plagiarized the paper. Wanda had actually written the paper for another course and naively had submitted it to Professor Bella's class. The professor gave her a zero and she failed the course.
Wanda thought this was the end of the story. But it wasn't — based on the false suspicions Social Services now had a file on Wanda as a potential child molester. And from 1994 to 1996, that file traveled around Conception Bay to a half dozen out port community welfare offices. From Carbonner to St. John's more than twenty different social workers were handed the file on Wanda. A file that Wanda never knew existed. Even when the RCMP in Bay Roberts got the file - just five minutes away from her family home. But while everyone else talked - nobody called Wanda.
It wasn't until about two years later that Wanda had any idea of what had happened. She and her partner Roy received a call from the Child Protection unit in St. John's. They asked Roy to come in to discuss a matter concerning Wanda and his two young children he had from his former marriage. Roy and Wanda raced into the social services office and were confronted with the Case Study. The social worker asked him if he had any reason to believe that Wanda was sexually abusing his children. The social worker placed the Case Study in front of him and quickly he and Wanda sorted out the confusion. Wanda went home, found the term paper and showed it to the social worker.
Within twenty-four hours, Newfoundland's Child Protection Services sent her a letter clearing her of their suspicions.
Wanda thought this disturbing episode in her life was finally over, but it was just beginning. She and Roy thought it was appropriate for Memorial University to issue an apology but they refused. Explains Professor Bella: "In a situation where there's a possibility of child sexual abuse, you have to be extremely careful not to put the children in danger by doing the investigation yourself while it's happening."
So what should the professor have done? We asked Andrew Caddigan, a front line social worker with almost thirty years experience with young offenders. Says Caddigan:
"You'd have to be a moron to make some of these decisions I mean before you make any statement to anyone concerning the idea that this person could be a threat to children, you investigate it. Then investigate it again and then investigate it again."
But Memorial University stood firm and believed that professor Bella and Rowe did no wrong. Wanda Young met with the university on five occasions asking for an official apology but they refused to give her one.
So Wanda went on to work in a series of low paying part time social work positions — as a caseworker and as a guard at a juvenile detention centre. It was tough work and she received good feedback from her superiors like Andrew Caddigan but never was able to move up into more senior positions.
And one day while working at the Confederation government building in St. John's Andrew Caddigan overhead a group of people discussing who would be good for a promotion and heard Wanda's name come up. "I heard one of the workers say — but Wanda has been red-flagged."
Six years after meeting with the social worker whom she thought had cleared her name, Wanda found out through Andrew Caddigan that she was red-flagged and her name was on a registry within the ministry as a suspected child abuser.
A teary-eyed Wanda recalls: "Basically my resume got passed over because I was red flagged as an alleged sex offender. I was very angry.
And she understood now why her career was being held back. And a simple mistake made eight years earlier was causing a major disruption in her life.
In 2002, Wanda Young sued Memorial University. In October 2003 her case went to court in St. John's. After a three-week trial that made headlines in Newfoundland, the six-person jury found Memorial University, Professor Bella and William Rowe negligent and granted Wanda a damage award of over $800,000.
Wanda had her day in court and finally felt vindicated. But her nightmare was far from over. Memorial University appealed the case and won. Wanda had received about $300,000 of the $800,000 award, but had to pay it back. It was a devastating. "I still can't understand how somebody can take that away," says Wanda, "I can't believe somebody's letting them off for what they did. I makes no sense that they can do this to an individual and get off with it."
Wanda had one last chance to reverse the appeal court's decision. She took her case to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court of Canada. At best, it was a long shot. The Supreme Court of Canada receives hundreds of applications and accepts about thirteen percent of the cases.
But in October 2005 they heard Wanda's case and in January 2006 made a decision. It was unanimous - all seven Supreme Court judges sided with Wanda Young. They dismissed all of Memorial University's arguments and upheld the original jury's verdict.
It was a big moment for Wanda, her family and her lawyer Gillian Butler. W-FIVE caught up with Wanda and her family at her lawyer Gillian Butler's office in St. John's. They were ecstatic about the ruling but Gillian Butler thinks there are larger issues for the rest of the country.
"The most profound one is you cannot make a report without a foundation. You cannot make an unjustifiable report because the consequences to an individual who was totally innocent are too significant," says Butler.
But not everyone agrees. Peter Dudding of the Child Welfare League of Canada thinks this case will have a negative effect on child welfare reporting practices across the country.
I'm worried about the family doctor, the school teacher, perhaps the police officer, those people who are dealing a lot with children, who may not be quite as well informed around their responsibities are and maybe worried about what their liabilities might look like," Dudding told W-FIVE's Victor Malarek in an interview.
Gillian Butler disagrees. "The Supreme Court of Canada says the university had no information. This ruling doesn't affect a case then people truly have information that a child is in need of protection. One, there was no child. Two, there was no information. End of story."
W-FIVE asked Memorial University for an interview but they didn't return our telephone calls. They did issue a press release saying they accept the Supreme Court decision and have promised to write Wanda a letter of apology.
And after all, that's all Wanda really wanted in the first place.