An independent investigation into the handling of the Hidden Valley abuse incident found that the government failed when it chose not to communicate with parents, but blamed the outcome on “systemic” issues.
Vancouver-based lawyer Amanda Rogers was hired in October 2021 to undertake the investigation, which included access to original documents and emails, in addition to interviews with government employees and parents at the school.
On Jan. 31, the government released the report. It’s focused on an incident during which a former education assistant named Wiliam Auclair-Bellmare was caught sexually abusing a student at Hidden Valley Elementary School in 2019. Parents were never informed and the RCMP failed to identify other possible victims, who came forward later when the case went public.
Rogers’ report includes seven recommendations and a conclusion that the government response was “inadequate.”
“I’ve really tried in a chronological, sensible way to explain exactly what was going on […] and use those findings about what actually happened to ground recommendations about identifying where things went wrong and what could be done to prevent that,” said Rogers, during a press conference on Feb. 1.
Rogers and Education Minister Jeanie McLean presented the report to parents at a closed Zoom meeting on Jan. 31. A press conference with Rogers and Premier Sandy Silver took place on Feb. 1.
The former Education minister who was in power at the time of the incident, Tracy-Anne McPhee, was not involved in either presentation.
The report found that “parents’ anger was justified” and the response by the government was “inadequate” but stopped short of assigning blame to specific individuals.
Instead, the report emphasized systemic failures — a general lack of training, communication and standard policies that resulted in poor decision-making.
Rogers said the government should have informed parents, but she said the delay in identifying other potential victims laid with the RCMP, who have admitted responsibility for dropping the investigation prematurely.
At various points during the fallout, parents — and opposition politicians — have called for resignations of deputy minister Nicole Morgan and McPhee.
“I spoke to parents last night to present these findings. There was at least one or two parents who really felt like one person ought to be held accountable for this. Believe me, if I felt that one person ought to be held entirely accountable, I would have found that. But I really do believe this as a systemic failing of information not getting up and information not going down,” said Rogers.
In the report, Rogers notes that Minister McPhee received two briefing notes involving the case, in November 2019 and March 2020. But, she notes, McPhee was not informed about the discussion on whether or not to inform parents.
Roger’s report notes that “in hindsight, those in leadership roles ought to have more proactively inquired into the department’s response” but she said the information provided was limited.
The report said that Deputy Minister Morgan was kept in the loop about developments in the case, but the topic of communicating with the families was never raised again.
“Simply put, it seems the significance of this event was not recognized by those tasked with responding,” wrote Rogers in the report.
Based on legal advice — which appeared to have been viewed as actuality rather than advice — the decision not to contact parents was made in December 2019 without consulting the minister or cabinet.
“A terrible mistake was made not to send the communication in December, and then later that decision was never revisited,” said Morgan.
During the press conference, Silver said there will be no professional repercussions for those involved, but the government intends to adopt all seven of Rogers’ recommendations.
“There was no attempt to cover up or no ill intent by any official,” he said. “We accept and we’ll implement all of the report’s recommendations to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Rogers’ report also makes a vague reference to an earlier incident that took place in the 2014-2015 year, when Auclair-Bellmare was caught alone with a student in suspicious circumstances, but staff at the school took him at his word and did not report or document the potential abuse.
Contact Haley Ritchie at firstname.lastname@example.org