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Inside a Child Welfare File
April 24, 2015 permalink
Kane Blacque grew up in Alberta foster care. In 2014 he requested his child welfare file. Ordinarily social service agencies resist disclosure of these files, but Blacque was successful in getting the whole box of documents. A reporter for the Edmonton Journal examined the file and spoke to Blacque. The enclosed report is a rare look inside a child welfare file.
Blacque had an unusual view of adoption. When he was seven years old he was placed with an adoptive family. The file is filled with lies told to the adoptive parents. The move was not a positive experience for Blacque. He lost his friends in his foster home, and left with the belief that his foster father had rejected him. The adoption failed when the adopters realized Blacque was gay.
Here is a copy of the accompanying Video by Ryan Jackson (mp4).
Former foster child finally able to shed light on past filled with abuse, drugs and depression
EDMONTON - The old 1982 TV images have faded in colour, almost to sepia tones. But the video opens on images of two well-groomed little aboriginal boys, their dark hair shining, their eyes bright, as they explore the Storyland Valley Zoo, riding the tiny train past the old Indian village with its tipis, sticking their heads inside the mouth of the giant whale. The older boy grins up at the camera — and the camera loves him right back.
It’s a vintage clip of Wednesday’s Child — the CTV feature designed to convince Albertans to adopt children in need.
The TV presenter gushes that these two little boys “are so cute, you want to scoop ‘em up and pack them home right away.”
“They are two of the most well-behaved little boys I’ve ever met,” says the pretty white presenter, as she earnestly encourages TV viewers to adopt the brothers as a set.
“They’re healthy and sharp as tacks. They need a family who will appreciate their spunk and humour.”
It’s a sentimental image of happy children frolicking — designed to pluck the strings of the coldest heart.
The reality behind those images?
Far colder than most cosy TV viewers could imagine.
Kane Blacque, 39, is sitting across the table from me at a busy breakfast restaurant. He’s handsome, well-dressed, with a cherubic round face and the same mischievous grin he sported as a child.
These days, he’s a local gay rights activist, a competitive karaoke singer, and a senior account executive with a national magazine based in Edmonton.
He lives in a comfortable suburban townhouse with his partner, a buttoned-down business executive.
Sitting on the table between us is a large cardboard banker’s box.
“This box holds my life,” says Blacque. He’s not kidding.
Blacque is what you might call a survivor of Alberta’s child welfare system. He was in and out of protective care from infancy to the age of 18, when he “aged out” of the system.
It was a life, as he remembers it, full of neglect, violence, sexual and physical abuse, of homophobic bullying, drugs and alcohol, depression, suicide attempts, life in the sex trade and on the streets.
Last August, Blacque filed a Freedom of Information request with Alberta Human Services to see his entire child welfare record. That’s what’s in the box. That’s what he wants to share.
Normally, child welfare records in Alberta are strictly sealed. The media and the public never get to see them, not even in a case where a child dies in care. For a journalist to able to read an entire case file is almost unprecedented.
Digging through the pages and pages in the box is like conducting a kind of social autopsy. Except in this case, the abused child, the kid on the path to being a statistic, beat the odds. He survived, overcame, and lived to tell his tale.
Kane Blacque’s story begins years before he was born, with his mother Theresa Marie Desjarlais.
She was born in Bonnyville in 1959, and grew up near Wolf Lake, home to what was then known as the Wolf Lake Métis Settlement. The fifth of 10 children, she was raised largely by grandparents in a one-room house.
Her grandfather, she later told Edmonton Journal columnist June Sheppard, taught her to trap and snare. Her grandmother taught her to pick wild berries.
But in 1960, the provincial government officially “disbanded” the Wolf Lake settlement, and started to force out the land’s traditional people.
Desjarlais was five when her father, who was later described in court documents as “a repeated rapist,” abandoned the family. She was 11 or 12 when she was brought to Edmonton by her mother, who had a serious drinking problem.
Dejarlais told Sheppard in a 1980 interview that she was raped as a child by a cousin.
Eventually, she ended up as a permanent ward of the government.
In 1975, at the age of 15, while still under provincial guardianship, she became pregnant with her first child, the boy who would grow up to be Kane Blacque.
(That wasn’t his birth name, nor the name he was given by his adoptive parents. But it’s the name I’ll use throughout this story, for clarity’s sake, and to protect the privacy of his surviving siblings.)
Blacque was born in January 1976.
His birth certificate lists his father as Johnny Cardinal, aged 30. But child welfare records hint paternity was uncertain.
The young mother had only a Grade 5 education. She was addicted to alcohol and sniffing glue. Because she was homeless, child welfare authorities housed her and her infant son in a motel temporarily.
The baby was apprehended by child welfare authorities in October 1976 at his mother’s request.
He was made a temporary ward of the province, and moved from foster home to foster home. But in March 1977, he was returned to his mother, who was living with a new boyfriend and his mother.
Social workers who visited the home noted the boy had bruises and burns on his body, and that his mother seemed unconcerned and neglectful.
Nonetheless, the province returned the boy to his mother’s custody and closed his child welfare file.
Six months later, just after her 18th birthday, Theresa Desjarlais gave birth to her second child, Samantha.
Mother and daughter didn’t bond. A month after Samantha was born, Desjarlais asked child welfare workers to take Samantha away.
She was judged by workers to be “immature” and “a very poor parent” with “a marked capacity to be aggressive.” Social workers finally took Samantha and put her under temporary wardship for eight months. They left Blacque with his mother and her abusive boyfriend.
“He’d use a bullwhip or a stick or his belt,” said Desjarlais in a 1980 interview at the Remand Centre. “But he didn’t do it all the time. He didn’t like me swearing and did it for that, and once he gave me a black eye for glue-sniffing.”
Despite the chaos in the home, in October 1978 child welfare workers returned Samantha to her mother. A month later, Desjarlais gave birth to another boy.
Things went downhill rapidly, as Desjarlais tried, and failed, to cope with raising three children under the age of three.
On Dec. 17, 1978, someone called the child welfare crisis line with a tip that the children were being abused and the adults in the home were sniffing glue.
Police and social workers arrived, and noted that Samantha had bruises. But Desjarlais insisted she was a good mother, and that the apartment only smelled of glue because she and her friends had been building hobby models.
Workers left all three children in her care.
Three weeks later, Samantha was hospitalized with severe head trauma. Court records say Desjarlais showed no emotion when the ambulance picked up her daughter.
Doctors operated on the child to relieve brain swelling but the little girl died on Jan. 12, 1979, aged 14 months.
Desjarlais later confessed that she had repeatedly thrown the toddler to the ground in frustration and fury.
“All right, all right, I threw her twice to the floor — I was mad. She was crying,” Desjarlais later told police. “I picked her up, stood up and threw her from living room to kitchen between the doorway. (She) landed on her head and back, screaming. Bent down, picked up again, stood up, and threw to the floor again about three feet away, shoulder high.”
Child welfare workers didn’t apprehend Desjarlais’s two sons for 10 days after Samantha was rushed to hospital.
That same day, Desjarlais was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.
It was just 10 days before Kane Blacque’s third birthday.
Various experts have told him he couldn’t possibly remember those events. But he insists his memories are quite clear.
“I remember it. I remember the whole situation. I remember her throwing my sister against the wall, though — not the ground. But who knows? Lots of things got thrown against those walls.”
At trial, Desjarlais pleaded guilty to manslaughter. She was sentenced to three years, but the Court of Appeal reduced the sentence to two years, less a day.
“The social history reveals an almost unbelievable level of crime, violence and addiction in her parents and many siblings,” said the court, quoting from a report written by a forensic psychiatrist who examined Desjarlais.
“It is quite clear from her social history that she has lived in an atmosphere of violence and absence of any accepted rules and regulations. The solutions to problems within her family of origin … were brutality and the survival of the strongest. Her lack of guilt feelings with respect to the injuries inflicted on her daughter have to be seen within this context. If she has no respect for the law it is because she has never learned any.”
By then, the Edmonton Journal reported, Samantha’s two brothers, and another baby boy, who had been born to Desjarlais while she was in jail, had all been taken into government care.
But Kane Blacque’s problems were far from over.
Blacque and the older of his two half-brothers were placed together in a foster home in Edmonton, with parents who had a reputation as firm disciplinarians.
At first, records show, Blacque seemed to do well. He had significant speech delays, which social workers and doctors attributed to his chaotic early home environment. And he was tiny, possibly malnourished, only in the fifth percentile for height and weight.
But in his foster home and in school he made huge strides. He was soon a talkative little boy, hitting all his developmental milestones.
But as he spent more time in the foster home, the records show, he became withdrawn and anxious. His foster mother, social workers reported, was actively sabotaging attempts to have him adopted, and refusing to take him for play therapy.
Years after, the foster father would be arrested and charged with sexual assault and sexual interference, after he allegedly molested a young child. Those charges were later stayed.
However what Blacque later remembered was being molested and anally raped, repeatedly, by one of the older children who also lived in the foster home.
Finally, in the autumn of 1982, child welfare workers, eager to get the children out of the foster home and into a permanent placement, had them featured on the Wednesday’s Child TV segment.
The television promo worked. In 1983, Blacque and his half-brother were formally adopted by a family from the Edmonton region.
Initially, the social workers’ notes suggest, Blacque was upset. He asked if he was being given away because he’d been “bad.” He asked if his foster father now hated him. Records show he seemed unusually attached to one of the older boys in the foster home, though social workers made nothing much of this at the time.
Still, the files show the adoption seemed to go well.
“Initially (the child) was resistant in relating to (his adoptive father) but is now first out the door for ice fishing, etc.,” wrote one social worker in January 1983, just days before the boy’s seventh birthday.
“There have been no behaviours such as tantrums, bed wetting, sleep disturbances, etc. (The adoptive parents) cannot believe their luck in getting two such lovely children. A very satisfactory placement.”
Four months later, the reports were even more glowing.
“(The child) is making excellent progress in school, being in the top 10 percentile in marks. He has really blossomed.”
But there were worrisome signs, too. Trips to see his former foster family left the boy angry and disturbed, acting out and refusing to visit them again.
And curiously, the records provided to the adoptive parents made no mention that the two boys had been raised by an abusive mother, nor that they’d been in the house when their mother killed their sister.
Instead, the adoption report described Theresa Desjarlais in glowing terms.
“She usually took care of herself, was an excellent homemaker and was pleased when someone cared for her,” reads the report. “She was patient with her children and had a reserved personality.”
There’s also no record the boy and his adoptive parents were offered support or counselling to deal with the fact that Blacque had spent his first three years surrounded by extraordinary violence. Nor is there any indication the department tried to help the two half-brothers maintain their aboriginal identity or connection to their Métis roots.
While early records describe Blacque as Métis, later files define him as Caucasian. His native identity was erased.
Once the boys were adopted, child welfare closed their files.
From the outside, things looked all right. Blacque took music lessons and acting classes. He won lead roles in school and community plays. On his report cards, his drama and music teachers praised his talent.
But his adoptive mother would later report that Blacque tried to kiss her open-mouthed, using his tongue, while still a little boy. Reading between the lines of the social workers’ later reports, it seems clear that his adoptive father, a big, rugged outdoorsman who loved fishing and camping, had a poor and distant relationship with his artistic adopted son, and favoured Blacque’s younger half-brother.
“My mother would enrol me in a dance class, and he’d pull me out and put me in baseball,” Blacque recalls. “She’d put me in music lessons, and he’d pull me out and put me in tae-kwon-do. He wanted me to be a man, and she wanted me to be me.”
But though Blacque and his adoptive mother had a very close relationship, it could also be a toxic one.
“When she got angry, she lost her mind,” he remembers. “It was rage. And she would start hitting me with whatever she could find.”
Nor was it easy to be a gay, aboriginal kid at his school outside of Edmonton. He was regularly bullied and beat up at school, regularly called a fag.
Things came to a head in 1989, the year he turned 13.
An Edmonton social theatre company, Catalyst, came to his school with a show designed to teach kids to protect themselves from sexual abuse.
When the play was over, his principal asked to speak with him. The teachers and cast had been concerned by his demeanour while the show was on. They asked him if he had ever been abused.
“As far as I can remember, I actually denied everything,” Blacque says.
Finally, he told them that he had been regularly molested in his former foster home.
The disclosure brought no relief or release. Instead, it blew his life apart. Child welfare authorities investigated his allegations, and informed police. But no charges were ever laid, in part, say the records, because Blacque had been so young at the time of the alleged assaults, and in part because the alleged assailant was himself a minor at the time.
And Blacque’s sexual orientation itself clearly made some people uncomfortable.
There are vaguely disapproving notes in his files about the fact that most of his friends were girls, and about his unusual interest in fashion. Some of the reports on the file worry about his “gender confusion” or what they call his “sexuality problem.”
In 1989, Blacque’s homosexuality was seen primarily as a psychological disorder, a pathology to be treated or overcome, not as a positive part of his identity.
Child welfare arranged for counselling for Blacque and his adoptive mother — his adoptive father, according to the reports, refused to come — but it doesn’t seem to have offered much help.
The 13-year-old started acting out, sometimes with physical and sexual aggression. Before the year ended, his adoptive parents decided they could no longer cope.
They asked child welfare workers to remove the boy from their home. Not long after, they and Blacque’s younger half-brother moved to another province. By 1991, the adoption was legally over. The province became his permanent guardian.
For Blacque, it was a dark and terrible time. In three years, he bounced through some 20 different placements: foster homes, group homes, youth centres, secure lock-ups, and supported living arrangements.
Sometimes he ran away. Sometimes his behaviour was so anti-social, homes refused to let him stay. There were allegations — unproven in court — that he’d sexually propositioned or pressured other residents.
By 14, he was a child prostitute, turning tricks for money and affection.
Yet his child welfare records are virtually silent about this. Workers obviously knew he was working in the sex trade. In a 1991 file, a caseworker notes that police confirmed the boy had been kidnapped and seriously assaulted by a “bad trick” — but there’s no record of intervention to try to get him out of sex work.
That same year, he was approached by an Edmonton man, Doug Butler, who promised to make him a movie star in a sexually explicit film about a gay boy’s coming of age.
Butler showed him a script and signed him to a formal-looking contract. Then, he asked him to “audition”. The sexual relationship went on for two years.
“He told me my co-star would be River Phoenix, and I believed him,” says Blacque ruefully. “He was that good.”
Butler was eventually charged and convicted of sexual exploitation, and sentenced to 30 months in prison. In 1999, after similar convictions involving other victims, including a case where he drugged a young man and raped him on camera, Butler was designated a long-term offender.
But Blacque’s child welfare records make no mention of his abuse by Butler.
Despite it all, Blacque auditioned and was accepted into the drama program at Victoria School of the Arts. Even while bouncing from group home to group home, he became an elite high diver with a competitive club. He recalls winning a bronze medal at the 1991 Alberta Summer Games in Stettler. One of his best memories of this time, he says, was coming home from the competition to find that the residents and staff of the safe house for teen prostitutes had made him a cake and organized a party to celebrate his medal.
Back then, MacDonald Drive, above Bellamy Hill, was part of the gay stroll where young male prostitutes plied their trade. Blacque recalls spending a lot of time outside the Edmonton Journal building trolling for clients. He’d go to class in the morning, diving practice in the afternoon, then pick up johns in the evening.
Eventually, his life unravelled. He dropped out of high school and quit diving. He was drinking, using drugs, acting out against other kids in his group homes. He was shoplifting, setting fires, turning tricks. There were multiple suicide attempts. Sometimes, he says, he’d steal from the Bay and then wave at the security camera, more interested in getting caught, in getting attention, than in what he stole.
“Treatment” didn’t seem to help. One psychiatrist, who treated him while he was at the Yellowhead Youth Centre, was dismissive.
“A lethal suicide attempt, however, can not be taken seriously,” he wrote in one report.
Later, the same psychiatrist reported that Blacque had “a well-developed personality disorder” with “anti-social, borderline, and histrionic categories.” He concluded that no psychiatric treatment was appropriate.
“He is clearly not suicidal nor mentally ill, but merely extremely manipulative.”
Others took a more charitable view.
“While (the boy) was being sexually abused, his ability to trust in people who had power over him was greatly reduced and was further diminished by the fact that when the abuse was revealed, the community and family response was not appropriately supportive,” wrote one psychologist. “The depth of betrayal (he) experienced consequently lead to his abandonment of any real trusting relationship.”
Wrote another therapist, “For all his bravado, it is clear that he feels a great sense of loss and abandonment and perhaps betrayal by the adoptive parents and many of his behaviours are related to those feelings.”
At 18, he aged out of the child welfare system and his file was closed. He had his name legally changed to Kane Blacque.
There’s one more thing Blacque remembers about turning 18. That, as best he can recall, is when child welfare informed him that his birth mother, Theresa Marie Desjarlais, had died five years before.
Desjarlais served her sentence for the manslaughter of Samantha but there were lots of new arrests and convictions, beginning in 1982, the year she was released. In 1985, Desjalais was convicted of criminal negligence in the operation of a motor vehicle, common assault, and being unlawfully in a dwelling home. In 1987, she was convicted of possession of property obtained by crime and causing a disturbance.
Finally, in 1988, she was convicted of robbery, possession of a weapon and unlawful confinement, and sentenced to 822 days.
Desjarlais tried to commit suicide at the jail in Fort Saskatchewan by slashing her wrists. She was then transferred to the Lethbridge Correctional Centre.
On Oct. 17, 1989, she was seen by two psychologists, who found her extremely depressed, and wrote a report saying it was “paramount to get her psychiatric care.”
The next day, she was placed in solitary confinement after being found with drugs.
There were no cameras in the cells, but guards were supposed to check on her every 15 to 30 minutes. That night, according to a witness, she called out and told the guard she was going to string herself up. The guard reportedly yelled back, “Shut up, or we’ll restrain you.”
She tore apart the plasticized cover on her mattress, knotted the strips together, and hanged herself from the bars of a window.
She was discovered by the worried psychologist who’d opposed her move to solitary and had come to check on her.
She died four days later, shortly after being taken off hospital life support.
Her obituary in the Edmonton Journal made no mention of her four children.
She was just 30 years old.
On his own at 18, Blacque supported himself in the sex trade.
For a time, he was, he boasts self-mockingly, the highest-paid male escort in Edmonton. It was a very different life than picking up tricks on the street. The agency provided him with a car, driver and bodyguard.
Later, he left Alberta to work as an escort in B.C.
He battled addictions to drugs and alcohol. He made multiple suicide attempts. He moved back to Edmonton and was finally admitted to Alberta Hospital for electro-shock therapy, which helped with the depression, but disrupted his memory.
In 2005, he joined a class-action lawsuit against the province. The complainants were all survivors of the child welfare system who were suing the province, as their guardian, for failing to sue third parties who had injured or abused them.
But the class action, spearheaded by Edmonton lawyer Robert Lee, bogged down when Lee got into a dispute with two other class action specialists who were working with him on the case. The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench finally removed all the original lawyers, and reassigned the case to an Ontario firm that specializes in class-action suits. A decade later, the case seems no nearer to being settled.
Blacque has received some money from the province’s victims of crime compensation program for the sexual abuses he suffered — but not what he feels he deserves. His appeals of that process continue.
It’s easy enough to understand Blacque’s anger at a system that failed him from the day he was born to the day he “aged out”.
And yet, flipping through all the hundreds and hundreds of pages in his child welfare record, it’s also plain that many well-meaning, dedicated individuals tried to help him.
When they failed, it wasn’t generally through malice or neglect or overwork, but perhaps more through deluded optimism. Case workers wanted so badly to believe that they’d done the best for the little boy, that he was in a safe place, that they blinded themselves to signs that things were terribly wrong.
It’s also clear that Blacque himself, angry and distrustful, with powerful feelings of abandonment, often lashed out at the very people who were trying hardest to help him.
Blacque was clever and articulate, charismatic and charming. And he often used that charm to con people.
“My files say, ‘He’s a very good manipulator,’” Blacque acknowledges. “Well hell, you had to be. That’s how I survived.”
Even today, he admits, it’s hard for him to make and keep friends. He sabotages relationships, is unwilling to trust people, behaves badly to friends and employers, in an effort to insulate himself from emotional pain and rejection.
Yet, despite it all, he survived — bruised, but unbowed.
“I did it by fighting, kicking and screaming,” he says.
His life in the sex trade behind him, he put his charm and his hard-won sales skills to work, instead, in advertising sales. He’s been drug-free for three years. Volunteering has also been therapeutic, whether he’s raising funds to fight AIDS, collecting for the Food Bank, or supporting charities that help the homeless, or advocating for children at risk.
“I believe in karma,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life and made a lot of bad choices, so I try to level that out with good things. I’ve taken so much from the community, I think it’s important that I give back.”
Clean and off drugs, in a loving, supportive relationship, with a meaningful job, and with the story of his life spread out in black-and-white before him, he’s feeling a little more in control of his destiny than he has in a long time — perhaps ever.
“This is the first time I’ve ever felt that I’m being heard,” he says. “Thirty-five years later, I finally get to tell my story.”
Source: Edmonton Journal