A person living with a disability was tied up and threatened during a home invasion after being placed in an unsafe home by a foster care provider — just one example of nearly 30 abuse and neglect cases involving Manitobans with intellectual disabilities in 2018-19, according to provincial government documents.
The 29 substantiated cases of abuse and neglect came to light through a freedom of information request. CBC News asked the province for documents outlining cases of abuse and neglect involving people with intellectual disabilities reported to the Department of Families during the 2018-19 fiscal year.
Government documents outline each case and reveal that 24 incidents resulted in criminal charges, and at least four employees were fired as a result of the incidents.
"It's devastating to hear about the reports of mistreatment of vulnerable people," said Margo Powell, executive director of Abilities Manitoba, a network of agencies that supports people living with intellectual disabilities.
The majority of perpetrators in the incidents reported were identified in the documents as "community members." Others were identified as friends of the vulnerable victims, service providers or, in one case, a relative of the vulnerable person.
The number of criminal charges laid surprised Janet Forbes, the executive director of Inclusion Winnipeg, a registered charity that supports people living with intellectual disabilities.
She suspects the cases are likely a small number of the actual number of incidents of abuse committed in Manitoba.
Under Manitoba law, anyone who has knowledge of, or suspects, the abuse or neglect of a vulnerable person is required to report it to Manitoba Family Services.
But Forbes worries about emotional and psychological abuse that may not meet provincial criteria.
"We do not have a good assessment for measuring that … abuse. Just because somebody wasn't [physically] harmed, it doesn't mean that harm wasn't done to them," she said.
"Just because they appear to be easy to manipulate or control, people who are likely to perpetrate against vulnerable people will find them."
The 29 cases of abuse and neglect that were substantiated in 2018-19 are a fraction of the 356 allegations of abuse or neglect reported that year, according to the Department of Families' annual report. In total, 159 cases were investigated.
Forbes, who is also a member of Manitoba's adult abuse registry committee — which keeps track of people who have abused or neglected a vulnerable adult — adds that since the bar for laying criminal charges and establishing guilt is high, many incidents may never reach the courts.
"There could be all kinds of people that have gotten away with things that could be working [with vulnerable people], and you wouldn't necessarily know that."
Multiple sexual assaults, theft
The province's documents reveal that in one case from May 2018, a person who was staying at the home of a person with a disability drugged and sexually assaulted the vulnerable person.
In another case dating back to May 2017, a community member physically and sexually assaulted a vulnerable person they had met online.
At least three more incidents reported in 2018-19 involved the sexual assault of vulnerable people.
And in another incident that same year, a community member claimed to be sick, and convinced a person with a disability to give the perpetrator more than $5,000.
Some cases led to service providers being fired, including the incident involving the home invasion. A foster care provider was found to have placed a vulnerable person in a dangerous home, which was frequented by people in trouble with the law and drug users. The vulnerable person was threatened with a weapon after being tied up during a home invasion, the province's documents say.
In another case, a service provider was fired after emotionally abusing a vulnerable person with profanity. Another service provider was fired for being three times over the legal alcohol limit while transporting a vulnerable person in a vehicle.
'Devastating rates of turnover'
A government spokesperson declined to provide CBC with the names of the agencies involved in those incidents, or the names of facilities where the abuse and neglect occurred.
The documents provided to CBC said many agencies and communities that deliver services in Manitoba are smaller in scope and revealing the information could identify the people involved.
Abilities Manitoba's Powell said in a statement the abuse cases point to the importance of professionalizing people who work with people with disabilities, with standardized training and appropriate wages for staff.
"This is a human service and the quality of the service is dictated by the quality of the staff doing the work," Powell said.
"We want to see people choosing this work as a career, investing in the training, having the theory and knowledge of human rights and person-centered supports before entering the workforce."
She said right now, agencies typically pay workers close to minimum wage, hiring people who need a job and hoping they become dedicated employees.
"The reality is that the sector faces devastating rates of turnover, resulting in adults having roughly 770 direct support staff over the course of their lives."
Increased awareness: province
During a question period session at the Manitoba Legislature last fall, Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said he was concerned about a rise in cases of abuse against vulnerable people being referred to police.
For the 2018-2019 fiscal year, there were 61 referrals, according to the Department of Families' annual report — up from 39 the year prior.
"These are folks living in the community with disabilities and we want them to be safe, to live their lives to the full potential," Kinew told CBC News at the time.
"What's particularly concerning [is that] more people are being charged with crimes in these cases, so we need answers so that people with disabilities can live in the community in good health."
I don't think people even sometimes know … that they can report if something has happened. They just think, 'OK, this has happened before, it's probably going to happen again.' - Janet Forbes, Inclusion Winnipeg
A provincial government spokesperson said staff believe the rise in reports of alleged abuse comes from increased awareness among staff, service providers and others in the community, which leads to more potential abusers being investigated.
Families Minister Heather Stefanson said the safety of vulnerable Manitobans is a top priority for her government. She said allegations of neglect and abuse are thoroughly investigated by department staff.
"These investigations allow us to work with victims to ensure that they are safe and determine whether a matter needs to be forwarded to police so that those who criminally victimize our most vulnerable can be brought to justice," the minister, who was not made available for an interview, said in a statement.
The government spokesperson said every allegation of abuse or neglect is reviewed. If it is likely an act or omission has caused harm, or was likely to have caused harm, an investigation is required by a provincial staff member.
A community service worker, community program manager or a provincial protection co-ordinator could conduct the preliminary investigation.
The staff are responsible for reviewing the allegations to determine whether a formal investigation is warranted. If so, it is led by a provincial protection team and or regional staff.
Forbes questioned the training some of the staff have, and said it's an area the province could improve on.
"I hear that secondhand from a lot of the agencies — that they're concerned about how some of the incident reports that they write are investigated," she said. "I think it's a resource issue as well."
Forbes believes abuse cases are being taken more seriously than in the past, but she says there's still a need for increased awareness about the issue.
"I don't think people even sometimes know … that they can report if something has happened. They just think, 'OK, this has happened before, it's probably going to happen again, and I just go about my day,'" she said.
"That's where it's really frightening, because perpetrators and abusers will sometimes increase what they do, the level of abuse, especially when it comes to things like financial abuse.
"It's easy to get $20 [from a vulnerable person], and maybe they'll try for $200."