Families relieved as police look into Sask. care home abuse concerns

·5 min read
Naomi and Al Hawkins believe their son was a victim of sexual assault.  (Kimberly Ivany/CBC - image credit)
Naomi and Al Hawkins believe their son was a victim of sexual assault. (Kimberly Ivany/CBC - image credit)

Family members with loved ones connected to Shepherd's Villa, a Saskatchewan group home for people with cognitive and physical disabilities, say they are relieved that police are taking their concerns about abuse more seriously.

Brent Gabona has been accused of violating care home residents while working at Shepherd's Villa in Hepburn, Sask., about 40 kilometres north of Saskatoon. He was charged in May with five counts of sexual assault and three counts of sexual exploitation of a person with a disability after coming forward to police. Police say the alleged abuse happened between 1992 and 2006.

The charges only relate to five residents at the home. That didn't sit right with Naomi and Al Hawkins, who say Gabona provided one-on-one care for their son, Derek.

They believe their son was also a victim and pushed for a closer look. However, they said the Rosthern RCMP detachment told them their son wasn't a victim because he was verbal — that didn't fit the profile of the alleged victims. The Hawkins contacted a different detachment.

Al said police reviewed their information and on Monday the couple provided statements to RCMP in Meadow Lake. He said a case file has been opened for Derek.

"It's a huge sense of relief," said Naomi. "We felt since the beginning, since we heard about this, that [Derek] was likely a victim, and I truly believe that just because of his change of character after living in Shepherd's Villa."

The Hawkins have records documenting their son's behavioural changes while at Shepherd's Villa under Gabona's care.

Between April 2003 and July 2004, Derek never recorded more than three behavioural incidents a month. He went from one incident the previous month to nine in August 2004. In September 2005, there were 21, according to their notes.

A spokesperson for the RCMP said the investigation into Gabona is active now, although they declined to expand further.

"In order to protect the integrity of the investigation, the evidence obtained, and the privacy of those involved, the RCMP generally does not comment during the course of an investigation except as any potential charges are laid."

On Wednesday at provincial court in Rosthern, Sask., Gabona's court matter was adjourned until late August. He wasn't in the makeshift courtroom at the Lion's Club, but a court worker indicated he has submitted an application for legal aid.

Kendall Latimer/CBC
Kendall Latimer/CBC

Like the Hawkins family, Jacqueline Forbes has advocated for the police investigation to consider all people who were in the home when Gabona was.

Her brother Dean Astle is a current resident and also lived there during Gabona's time. Astle, who is non-verbal, was not identified as an alleged victim by RCMP.

Forbes said she has since been in contact with the RCMP and that a case file is being opened for her brother. Her next step will be providing a statement.

"I am just relieved and happy that someone's finally listening and willing to guide us and to look into the matter a little bit deeper — or a lot deeper — than what was originally done," Forbes said.

"The frustration has [lightened] a little bit, just in terms of being heard and it being taken seriously."

The Hawkins urged other potential witnesses or victims to come forward.

"I think there's lots of victims and I think there's lots of other information out there to do with this case. It's not being disclosed," Al said. "We'll find the truth."

Government, group home won't comment 

The Hawkins still wonder why they haven't heard from the Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Services (MSS) or Shepherd's Villa in the wake of the allegations.

They said they worked directly with the MSS community living division to find Derek's spot at the home, where he would receive direct care from Gabona.

"We have not heard from a soul," Naomi said.

"The question needs to be asked of them why they're not pursuing and asking questions on behalf of individuals that they represent," Al added.

Forbes contacted MSS. She said the ministry advised her how to obtain her brother's files and connect with the RCMP,  but was otherwise reluctant to comment.

Brent Gabona/Facebook
Brent Gabona/Facebook

Bob Martinook, executive director of community living service delivery for the ministry, would not respond to CBC's questions about why the ministry has not launched an internal investigation into the allegations or whether it would.

In a statement, he said "as this specific matter is before the courts, the Ministry of Social Services is unable to provide a comment on this case."

The statement went on to say contracted group homes are directly responsible for who they employ and that "organizations must ensure the safety, rights and respectful treatment of the individuals they work with."

It said MSS requires service providers to report serious incidents, and that it responds "immediately" when addressing alleged abuse, by engaging with police, participating in the formal investigation, documenting the results and making recommendations to mitigate future incidents.

WATCH | Families want investigation beyond suspect's words about abuse at Sask. care home:

Jean-Yves Marsolais, executive director for Shepherd's Villa, also declined an interview request.

Al noted he and Naomi asked for an investigation back in November 2005 about what triggered their son's change in behaviour. It never happened, but Al feels more hopeful since speaking with police.

"We were asked to provide numerous names of individuals that were involved in the time that Derek was there, and I do believe that there's going to be questions asked."

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