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Hitting Where it Hurts
December 31, 2013 permalink
Steve Reh's parents were unable to cope with his spina bifida, so he grew up in the Southwestern Regional Centre in Blenheim Ontario. When he was in pain, staffers asked him where it hurt. They hit him exactly in the place he pointed to.
Ex-Southwestern Regional Centre resident alleges rampant abuse at ‘the joint’
Steve Reh painfully recalls his childhood living in what he calls “a prison without bars,” as a resident of the Southwestern Regional Centre.
A morning wake-up call could be a cold bucket of water splashed in your face, he said, and brutal beatings and electric shocks were common during the day. And when you went to bed – some nights without dinner – you found you weren’t always alone under your blanket, he said, as that was often the time when sexual abusers would strike.
“It was basically hell encased in a building,” said Reh. “Waking up, you would just think: ‘OK, what’s going to happen to me today? Am I going to get hit again?’ You could never have nice thoughts. Ever.”
Reh is one of at least eight former residents who are from the Windsor area and are involved in a class-action lawsuit against the province for physical and emotional abuse that is alleged to have taken place at the centre. The lawsuit alleges the centre – for people with physical and developmental disabilities – failed to properly care for and protect the residents from physical and mental harm, and that the plaintiffs are emotionally and psychologically traumatized by their experiences.
A tentative settlement of $12.1 million was reached last week and still has to be approved by a judge. The allegations made in the lawsuit have not been proven in court. Reh said not all the staff participated in the abuse.
Reh, 50, has spina bifida and has been in a wheelchair his entire life. He became a resident of Southwestern Regional, located near Chatham, at the age of seven, and remained there for more than 10 years.
Prior to living at the facility, he resided in a group home. His parents had sent him there because they were unable to deal with his disability.
But one day he was swiftly moved to the Southwestern Regional with no explanation.
“At first, not much happened, but as the years would go on, I would either experience or see all kinds of abuse, be it sexual, emotional, physical, you know, whatever,” Reh said Saturday during an interview from his east Windsor apartment, where he lives with his wife Candi. “Like everything you could imagine that’s wrong, it was that.”
He said he was hit hard by workers, which left bruises for days, and for no apparent reason.
“Just for the hell of it, they would hit you, just to get their damn kicks,” said Reh. He said although it thankfully never happened to him, he witnessed some residents abused with what he described as cattle prods, a high-voltage electric shock used for herding cattle.
He said residents were only called out by their last name, if not by obscenities and insults like “Get over here, idiot.”
And he said complaining or showing any type of weakness was out of the question.
He recalled once when he was curled up in bed in pain, a worker came to inspect him and asked where it hurt. He said the worker told him to put his hands at his side so he could take a look.
Reh said the worker then punched him right where he had been hurting.
“If they hit any harder, they probably could have cracked my ribs,” said Reh. “So if I was in pain, I suffered through it, which was a lot less painful than what I might get afterwards. So I just began to build myself a little wall.”
As Reh spoke, his voice cracked, and he reached out several times to hold hands with Candi, who was sitting beside him on a couch in their living room.
“And the sexual abuse, well you can imagine what that entailed, I’m sure,” said Reh. “I was violated in every which way…. It’s a subject I don’t care too much to talk about.”
Now a short, middle-aged man with long, wispy, neatly combed grey hair, Reh refers to the centre as “the joint.”
He said he once tried seeking help from a worker in another ward, but that worker reported it back to the workers he was complaining about, and they beat him harder than ever.
He said he considered suicide twice while a resident of the facility, and one time held a razor blade inches from his wrist.
“There’d be no one I could turn to,” said Reh. “For lack of a better term, it was a prison without bars.”
He said one of the worst things he witnessed occurred one night while workers were playing cards. A blind child was sitting nearby, minding his own business rocking back and forth on the ground.
Then one of the workers got up from the game of cards and kicked the blind boy in the head with shoes that had high platform heels, Reh said.
“He rammed the kid’s head and about five minutes later, there’s blood coming down his face.”
Another time, he said, a boy was having a seizure and none of the workers were aware of it.
“Where the hell were they? Playing their little games,” said Reh. “So I had to go get one of them. He could have died.”
When Reh was 17, a couple attended the facility to adopt someone. When Reh met with them, he said it was like love at first sight and he knew that they had chosen him.
“They basically saved me,” said Reh. He remembers being adopted on a mid-December day in 1980.
He has never been back to the centre since.
“For about a dozen years after I left, I’d have flashbacks so crystal clear that an image would replace what I’m seeing, just in broad daylight, and it was like a constant reel of kids being beaten or whatever,” said Reh.
He said being at the facility made him paranoid. He could not trust anybody, and said he didn’t disclose any of the details of his abusive past to anybody.
He said he would flinch if someone came close to him and was always on edge.
He said he moved out onto his own in his mid 20s and became an alcoholic – an attempt, he said, “to bury it and just try to forget it all.”
But then he met Candi and her son John, who was seven at the time, and his life changed.
He said he thought he would never see the day when the facility would close, or he would be a plaintiff in a case against the province for what happened to him there.
The facility operated from 1961 to 2008. The class-action lawsuit was launched in December 2010.
Candi said Reh was sobbing happy tears when a tentative settlement in the case was reached last week. Thousands of former residents will be eligible for compensation if the settlement’s approved.
The tentative deal came after the province agreed to a $35-million settlement in a similar case involving former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre, a facility that also provided treatment and care for persons with developmental disabilities. That settlement included a written apology from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.
Reh said he feels justice is being served.
“Oh yeah,” said Reh, raising his fist in the air. “Finally, something’s being done. And thank God that place is finally closed.”
Source: Windsor Star