Content warning: This story contains details of child sex abuse.
A First Nation child welfare agency in northwestern Ontario is being sued for $21 million by eight former foster kids who allege they were sexually abused in care of the agency, APTN has learned.
The eight separate lawsuits allege Weechi-it-te-win Family Services failed to protect them and put them in unsafe foster homes.
The victim’s ages range of 23 to 46 years old and they are represented by Pace Law firm.
None of the allegations, occurring between 1980-2010, have been tested in court.
Seven of the plaintiffs said the sexual abuse happened in the homes Weechi placed them in.
While, a 33-year-old man alleges he was abused by a “social worker” in the 1990s, only to be called a “liar” when he reported it to a supervisor at Weechi and shipped the next day to Minnesota, where the agency has sent children to secure treatment facilities in the past.
Weechi is located in Fort Frances, Ont., a border town across from International Falls, Minn.
The social worker is identified as Harry Kelly, according to the claim filed on April 1, 2021.
“The plaintiff being told, by Harry, that the plaintiff was special, receiving presents from Harry who, after gaining the plaintiff’s trust, sexually assaulted the plaintiff in a vehicle,” the claim alleges.
“Harry touched the plaintiff’s genitals over the plaintiff’s clothes, took the plaintiff’s hand and put it inside his own clothing so that the plaintiff could masturbate Harry. After the assault, Harry told the plaintiff, who was between six and eight years of age at the time of the assault, that the plaintiff ‘was a good kid.'”
Weechi admits that Kelly was working for them, but denies all allegations.
“This defendant states that Harry Kelly is an individual who held multiple positions with this defendant but this defendant denies that there was any material involvement or interactions between Harry Kelly and the plaintiff,” says Weechi in its statement of defence.
APTN reached out to Kelly about the allegations.
“I’ve done no such things to the boy,” he said in a text exchange.
APTN asked why the boy was sent to Minnesota following the allegations, which the lawsuit says were reported to Kelly’s brother, Lawrence Kelly, who was the supervisor of Weechi’s child welfare team at the time in the Ojibways of the Onigaming First Nation.
“Again. I have not done no such thing to him,” Kelly replied. “I’m sorry. I may not be allowed to discuss the clients plan of care.”
APTN said that Kelly must remember the boy’s allegations, as a claim such as that would be hard to forget.
“I didn’t say I forgot about it. I said I have not done no such thing to him. Don’t throw your words into my response ok,” said Kelly.
APTN asked if Weechi investigated and Kelly said to ask the agency.
“Any serious allegations were followed up. I’m sure,” said Kelly.
APTN told Kelly that Weechi said in its statement of defence that he had no interactions with the boy.
“I don’t even know who the boy is,” Kelly replied.
Weechi says in its statement of defence it was unaware of any sexual abuse allegations at the time.
Lawrence Kelly didn’t respond to APTN.
APTN reported earlier this month that Kelly was convicted of sexual interference in 2012 for abusing a 15-year-old girl in care of Weechi who said she was raped by Kelly, according to court records. Kelly, a longtime Weechi employee, was also a band councillor at the time the child was abused.
He was sentenced to three years in prison and is a registered sex offender.
Kelly still has several court orders that he has to follow, including not working with children under the age of 16 in a position of authority.
APTN’s investigation also identified several other men employed by Weechi who were convicted of sexually abusing children in care of the agency, as well as caregivers who have been charged with doing it dating back to 1995.
APTN uncovered that Weechi hired at least three men previously convicted of sex crimes. One still works for the agency – Gilbert Smith, who is paid as an Elder.
APTN’s investigation has sparked a “thorough investigation” by both the federal and provincial governments.
Now these lawsuits increase the number of potential victims.
The man who says he was allegedly abused by Kelly as a young boy claims that he continued to be sexually abused by other people while in the care of Weechi. He never reported the abuse, because he wasn’t believed the first time. He doesn’t name of any of those alleged abusers in the claim.
Documents show that Kelly was also a caregiver for Weechi during this period.
A 32-year-old woman says that while she lived in his home she was “treated like a slave” and forced to do “extensive household chores.”
Kelly told APTN the “slave” allegation isn’t true.
Sisters allege they were sexually abused in caregiver’s home
Weechi also denies the allegations against Kelly as a caregiver in its statement of defence, as well as the woman’s allegations of sexual abuse that she says happened in a separate caregiver’s home.
The woman says that she was repeatedly sexually abused, including being raped, by the teenaged nephews of the caregivers who were sometimes left in charge of the house while the caregivers were away.
She also claims the caregivers beat her.
Weechi says, while it denies the abuse happened, it acted as soon as the allegations surfaced in March, 1996.
“This defendant immediately advised police, relocated the plaintiff, suspended the use of the community care home where the plaintiff had been placed and fully investigated the allegations,” Weechi states.
Weechi says it has no knowledge of abuse happening before that.
This woman’s 33-year-old sister also filed a claim against Weechi for being placed in the same home. She alleges she suffered the same sexual abuse from the same teenagers, as well as physical abuse from the caregivers. That claim was filed on Mar. 10, 2022 and Weechi hasn’t filed a defence.
The teenaged boys were identified by the sisters in court documents, but APTN believes they may have been minors at the of the alleged assaults.
‘Chased with knives’
A 35-year-old man claims he was chased with knives and beaten while in care, as well as “being sexually abused by his foster mother and other children in the home including fondling; being thrown outside and locked out in the winter, being thrown down the stairs by the plaintiff’s foster parents.”
The claim was filed on Feb. 2, 2022 against Weechi and another First Nations child welfare agency in Kenora – Anishinaabe Abinooji Family Services.
Weechi has filed a notice that it intends to defend against the allegations, while Abinooji hasn’t filed anything.
Boy makes collect call to get home
When the next plaintiff was about 11 years old he was sent to live on a farm in Alberta with a man named “Foxy”. His worker from Weechi drove him out there, according to his claim filed on June 15, 2022.
Now 38-years-old, he remembers his room was in the basement and it had no windows.
He also remembers waking up with his pants around his ankles and the foster dad beside him on two occasions.
“The abuse ended after approximately two months, when the plaintiff was able to contact his family by placing a collect call, following which he believes that his family members contacted a lawyer to help the plaintiff get home. The plaintiff was driven to the Edmonton airport where he boarded a flight to travel to his home in Ontario,” the claim alleges.
Weechi hasn’t filed a statement of defence but told the court it intends to fight the allegations.
Uncle accused of forcing child to sleep in his bed
Weechi is also being accused in court of similar neglect by a 23-year-old woman.
She claims that Weechi didn’t properly check the caregiver home as a young child.
She alleges she never had her own bed and alleges she was forced to sleep with the caregivers where she was molested under the sheets.
She also alleges she was denied food.
“[Weechi] failed to conduct proper home studies consistent with the appropriate standard of care and in accordance with its duties; such an exercise would necessarily have resulted in the plaintiff not being placed in the abusive settings or in the plaintiff being removed from the abusive settings, thereby protecting her from most or all of the abuse to which she was subjected,” the lawsuit alleges.
“It failed to conduct reference checks with respect to the foster families, or if it conducted reference checks, it failed to adequately and properly do so in accordance with accepted and/or reasonable personnel procedure.”
Weechi has filed a notice to defend against the claim. The alleged abuser was the woman’s uncle.
‘A family named Bird’ and ‘a Christian family’
A 37-year-old man said, in his claim filed July 19, 2019, that he came into care at the age of two through Kenora Child and Family Services before he was transferred to Weechi.
He claims to have been sexually abused in three different homes, but Weechi denies the allegations saying in part it never placed him in two of the homes described as the “a family named Bird ” in Fort Frances and the “a Christian family.”
‘The plaintiff was physically, sexually and psychologically’
The last claim against Weechi involves a 46-year-old woman who alleges she was repeatedly raped by two of her uncles while placed in care agreement with her grandmother by Weechi.
This went on to the age of six, according to the claim filed on Sept. 28, 2021.
“Over the course of her stay in the homes into which she was placed by the defendant, the plaintiff was physically, sexually and psychologically abused on many occasions,” the claim alleges.
“The plaintiff became pregnant while in care and gave birth when she was 13 years old. While she was pregnant, [Weechi] took the plaintiff to the home of the biological father of her unborn child. The plaintiff believes that [Weechi] removed the plaintiff from its care at that time.”
The father was another male youth and the plaintiff was sent to live with him and his mother.
The court file didn’t have any defence filed by Weechi in this claim.
APTN continues to investigate claims of sexual abuse in Treaty 3. If you have a story you want to share contact reporter Kenneth Jackson directly at 1-613-325-6073 or by email at [email protected]