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Wanda Young

Child abuse hysteria in Memorial University's School of Social Work Date

Wanda Young

Wanda Young is a young woman from the Newfoundland outport community of Spaniard's Bay. From the age of 12, she wanted to dedicate herself to victims of sexual abuse. It was her goal to become a social worker and help kids who had suffered from abuse. "I just felt in my heart and soul that I had something that I could do for these kids", says Wanda, "I don't know, I just wanted to help them out in any way I could."

In the early 1990s she enrolled in Memorial University in St. John's. She immediately began taking courses that would lead her to entrance into Memorial's School of Social Work. But it wasn't easy going for Wanda. The competition was fierce and her marks just bordered under the acceptance rate of 65 average. She decided to ask then acting department head Jane Dempster for advice on how to upgrade her marks and get into the school of social work. "She told me that they didn't think I had what it took to be a social worker. And if I wanted to pursue a career in social work I would have to go elsewhere." Reeling from this news she reluctantly gave up her dreams of becoming a social worker.

What Wanda Young didn't know was that Professor Dempster had been in touch with Professor Leslie Bella and they suspected that Wanda might be sexually abusing children in her care.

Wanda had written a 12-page term paper about juvenile sex offenders. The last two pages contained an appendix entitled "Case Study," a graphic and lurid account written by an actual teenage sex offender who would molest children in her care. Wanda had taken it word-for-word from a textbook. She refers to the appendix in the body of her paper but had forgotten to add a footnote. [The source was included in the bibliography as well.]

Professor Leslie Bella is a professor at the School of Social Work at Memorial University, but was away on a research project in Labrador. Although Professor Bella does not know Wanda and they have never corresponded, she decided that the account was Wanda Young's own story, a confession or "cry for help" and that Young might be a child sexual abuser. Professor Bella writes to Wanda Young expressing concerns about it Bella complains that it was handed in late and it amounts to academic plagiarism because it was submitted in two different courses but she does not ask Wanda anything about the appendix.

Instead Professor Bella contacts the province's Child Protection Services and suggests Wanda Young be investigated as a possible child sexual abuser. Child Protection Services says that without a specific child being suspected of being abused, they cannot act. They also tell Bella that she should discuss the matter with Wanda Young. But Bella does not.

Professor Bella takes her suspicions to Professor Jane Dempster and asks her to access Young's application, which is kept in a locked cabinet, and review it to see if it lists the names of children Wanda Young has babysat. It does not.

In May 1994 Professor Bella goes to her department head, Professor William Rowe, when he returned from holidays. Rowe also makes no attempt to talk to Wanda Young to ask her about the appendix. Prof. Rowe does contact the St. John's office of Child Protection Services and suggests Wanda Young be investigated by Child Protection Services and the RCMP. His letter is received by another Memorial Student working part time in the Child Protection Services office. Rowe sends Child Protection Services only the abuse account appendix, not the rest of the assignment. Young's bibliography, which is not sent to Child Protection Services, lists the book that was the source of the abuse account.

From 1994 to September 1996 the Wanda Young file is transferred from person to person and office to office with the province's Child Protection Services. The suggestion that Wanda Young may be a sexual abuser of children is communicated to between 10 and 19 social workers in different communities.

It wasn't until September 1996 when social worker Bob Dixon was assigned the file that Wanda was contacted. He asked her to come into his office in Manuels immediately and to bring her boyfriend Roy Daley, whose two daughters lived with them part time to accompany Wanda. This was Wanda's first indication that she has been under investigation for two years. "He asked me do I have any reason to believe that Wanda was sexually abusing my children," says Roy.

The social worker began to read from the appendix and at that point Wanda realized what had happened. "I said I copied this word for word from this book," recalls Wanda. "For the first second I was really upset. But then I realized that it was something that I could clear up so easily."

She rushed home and brought the book back to Bob Dixon's office. Within 24 hours Child Protection Services sent Wanda Young a letter clarifying that she was in no way a child sexually offender.

In the days that follow, Wanda tried to make a formal complaint against Memorial University but was told she cannot because she is no longer a student there. She sought apologies from Professor Bella and the School of Social work but was rebuffed. Wanda Young then decided to sue Memorial University.

Memorial University's Communication Director Peter Morris says the university did just what they are obligated to do in when they suspect child abuse. "all the decisions in this indicate that the professors and the university did do no wrong. What we did, was what we were legally and professionally authorized to do."

Professor Bella concurs. "That's what we thought might be the case, which is why I consulted with my director in terms of what I should do about it, what should be done about it."

While the case proceeded slowly, Wanda worked in a series of low-paying casual social service jobs. During a temporary job as a youth care worker at the Pleasantville Remand Centre in St. John's, Wanda told her supervisor Andrew Caddigan about what had happened with her and Memorial University. Caddigan considered Wanda one of his best workers. "Wanda was a great worker. Wanda definitely had a feel for people who weren't doing as well as she was doing. Wanda's great," recalls Caddigan.

But Wanda couldn't get hired for better jobs. She felt that something was holding her back, but it wasn't until Andrew Caddigan came upon several workers talking about Wanda Young in the corridors of the Confederation Building that it all made sense. The workers were talking about whom to hire as a youth care worker and the workers dismissed Wanda because they had heard that she was red-flagged as a sexual molester. "I was very angry", Wanda tearfully remembers. "Once again, this has caused a major disruption in my life I mean, it's still popping up."

In October 2003 Wanda Young's case against Memorial University went to court. After a three-week trial that made headlines in Newfoundland, the six-person jury found Memorial University, Professor Leslie Bella and Professor William Rowe negligent and awarded Wanda a cash settlement of $880,000. "It was really overwhelming. Here I was fighting this for nine years and finally I had won."

But unfortunately for Wanda her nightmare was far from over. Memorial University appealed the jury's decision and won. Now Wanda has to pay back amount of money she had received from the settlement about $330,000 and may be on the hook to pay Memorial's legal costs. Wanda doesn't know where she'll get the money to pay back the money and she's taking her case to the Supreme Court of Canada. In March 2005 her case was accepted by the Supreme Court and so Wanda Young will be fighting once again to clear her name. Something she feels must be done.

"I just feel that I've got to. These people have got to be told they did wrong and I hope we'll get the answer from the Supreme Court."

Memorial University

Memorial University

Top court to hear false sex abuse case

OTTAWA (CP) -- A Newfoundland woman suing Memorial University for $800,000 for wrongly labelling her a potential sexual abuser of children will get her day in the country's top court.

The Supreme Court of Canada, in a decision released without comment Thursday, agreed to review the case.

As a student at Memorial in 1994, Wanda Young wrote a paper on sex abuse. She included a passage -- taken from a class textbook and duly noted in her bibliography -- that featured a first-person account written by an anonymous sex abuser.

Her professor thought Young might be describing herself and reported her to the provincial child protection service.

No charges were ever laid, but Young's name was eventually passed on to the RCMP and entered in a database of suspected sex offenders.

She later learned she had been red-flagged as a potential abuser.

She won a damage award of $839,400 from a civil jury in 2003, but the award was overturned the next year in a split decision by the provincial appeal court.

Wanda Young

The bitter taste of vindication

When a Newfoundland jury awarded Wanda Young $849,400 last year for having been wrongly labelled a possible child abuser, it was vindication and compensation rolled into one.

"I'll never forget that moment as long as I live," Ms. Young said. "A jury of my peers had sat for three weeks hearing all the evidence. Justice had been totally served."

Until last month, that is, when justice appeared to veer off the rails. In a head-scratching ruling, the Newfoundland Court of Appeal effectively supported Ms. Young's case, but cancelled the monetary award against Memorial University. She was left with nothing but grief and mounting legal bills.

"For the first few hours, I was in total disbelief,"she said in an interview. "I was totally devastated." And the university has applied to have Ms. Young repay its legal costs both from the trial and the appeal. That bill would run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ms. Young, 33, also faces having to repay $318,000 she has received so far from the award.

"The bizarre and unusual events which led to her trial . . . concern matters of national interest," Gillian Butler, Ms. Young's lawyer, said. "Perhaps this brave young woman was destined to carry this case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to have . . . her reputation cleared not just locally, but nationally." Ms. Butler expects to seek leave to appeal to the Supreme Court soon.

From the age of 7, Ms. Young dreamed of working with abused children in rural Newfoundland. She was on her way to achieving that goal when, in 1994, a professor at Memorial University abruptly informed her she was a dud. "I was totally demoralized," Ms. Young recalled. "I felt that all my dreams had all gone out the window. . . . I went out in my car and cried."

What she did not know at the time was that quotes she had appended to a class essay had been interpreted by concerned faculty as a cryptic cry for help from a closet child abuser.

It would be two years before she was confronted with the allegation, a period during which communications flew back and forth between Memorial faculty, police and child-welfare officials.

When she was finally asked about the reference in the essay, she was dumbfounded. "I just couldn't believe I had actually been accused of something I'd stood so strongly against," said Ms. Young, who is married with two stepdaughters.

She instantly identified the addendum as a first-person account written by an abuser, which she had culled from a British Columbia text. She was shattered to learn that, over two years, investigators had gone so far as to question mothers of children she had babysat.

"I still can't believe they did all that," she said. "I just couldn't believe that nobody had contacted me." Memorial University declined to apologize, Ms. Butler said. Ms. Young sued for defamation and negligence, severe anxiety, lost income, insomnia, paranoia and depression.

In response, lawyers for Memorial argued that Ms. Young was a mediocre student who had little chance of making it as a social worker. They also said that faculty were protected from liability by a law encouraging people to report suspected child abuse.

The jury thought otherwise and sided with Ms. Young.

The university appealed the jury's ruling, arguing that the award had been unreasonable, disproportionate and out of synch with the evidence.

When the province's Court of Appeal threw it out, Ms. Butler was flabbergasted. Simply getting a civil jury trial in Newfoundland is extremely rare, she said. It is that much rarer for a civil jury award to be overturned. But to have such an award overturned by an appeal court panel split in three different directions is probably without precedent.

In her reasons for judgment, Madam Justice B. Gale Welsh said the jury lacked proper grounds to make an award. She also agreed the university and faculty enjoyed immunity from legal action under the Child Welfare Act. She concluded there should be no new trial.

Judge Welsh noted in passing that the fiasco had been avoidable. "The file was transferred from person to person, and office to office for more than two years, with little apparent regard for confidentiality," she noted disapprovingly.

Mr. Justice Denis Robert held the opposite view - wholeheartedly endorsing the jury's findings. "The trial judge made no errors of law," he said. "The jury's findings of negligence were supported by the evidence. The award of general damages was not wholly 'out of proportion.' The other awards were supported by the evidence." Because he supported the verdict and award, he did not call for a new trial.

Mr. Justice Malcolm Rowe occupied a middle ground. He felt that the university did enjoy immunity in respect to reporting possible abusers. At the same time, he said a new jury ought to be assembled to consider whether the university's subsequent actions in deterring Ms. Young from staying in her program were negligent.

"In my view, the plaintiff should not be denied her day in court, which she will if this case cannot be heard," Judge Rowe concluded.

The upshot? Two of the three judges felt that Ms. Young had a genuine case to be tried. Yet she lost both her award as well as the possibility of a new jury hearing her case.

The legal anomaly set Ms. Young and Ms. Butler reeling. According to law, Ms. Butler said, the bar is quite sensibly set extremely high when it comes to overturning jury awards. Awards are impregnable unless they are "so plainly unreasonable and unjust as to satisfy the court that no jury reviewing the evidence as a whole and acting judicially could have reached it.

"In light of this test, Ms. Young was, naturally, extremely disappointed and has been under enormous stress," she said. "My client started her legal action in 1998 and . . . she put her complete faith in the judicial system.

"It is hard to deal with a situation where you have decisions that are as unusual as this."

After her university life was upended, Ms. Young has worked in a succession of office jobs and contract positions. She is currently on a short-term contract in the client-services section of the provincial Labour and Employment Ministry.

Thanks to Adriaan Mak for providing the following:

Some old and recent articles and a column about the Wanda Young case. There is lots of irony here. Both the student and the professor were child abuse activists. The 1994 paper was written at a time when the case against 11 Christian Brothers from the Mt. Cashel Orphanage had been charged and were convicted of scores of physical and sexual assaults.

A number of the accusations against some brothers were claimed to be false; this was never fully revealed. see also: [from the Wayback Machine archives -]

"There were numerous incidents of false accusations made public by witnesses who were beyond any challenge in the context of the commission. Those falsely accused had no redress and no public forum in which to refute the allegations." MICHAEL A. MAHER, CFC President of the board Church Council on Justice and Corrections.
[from the Wayback Machine archives -]

Peter Morris

Peter Morris: Director of University Relations

Damage control? But we must first understand the damage.

Does the university truly believe it is just for Young to receive nothing?

Peter Morris sent this letter which he has said the Globe and Mail has refused to print. Perhaps they did not print it because it continues to beg the question. The first thing that jumped out at me as I read about this case is that a professor would betray a student by turning over a paper written in one context for purposes entirely outside that context. I don't care how many courts vindicate the university: the professor was wrong. That to me is the simple issue. If students cannot engage in frank and open discussions with their professors without fear of reprisal, and if professors do not keep an open mind, it certainly reflects upon the academy. -- Sheila Steele

November 3, 2004


Re: "The bitter case of vindication" by Kirk Makin, The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004

The case of Wanda Young in relation to Memorial University is an unfortunate one. But that situation was not caused by any action of Memorial University or its professors. The Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal was very clear on that matter. The Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Social Workers, in an independent review of this issue, arrived at similar findings.

The university is not unsympathetic to the situation in which Ms. Young finds herself, however it has been established clearly that that circumstance is in no way related to any inappropriate act by Memorial University or its officials.

Your reporter and editors made no effort to contact the university for its position in advance of publishing this article and, as a consequence, the article contains factual errors. For example, it is the university's insurer taking action to recover its costs and not the university as erroneously reported.

The professors involved in this unfortunate circumstance exercised their best professional judgment in reporting their suspicions to the appropriate authorities. They did what they believed they were professionally and legally bound to do. Once they reported their suspicions, that was the end of the university's involvement. Both the Court of Appeal decision and the review conducted by the professional association recognize this.

The title of the story "The bitter case of vindication" could just as easily apply to Memorial University and the two social work professors who, despite having done the right thing and despite having had to endure two difficult trials and despite having been thoroughly vindicated, are still subject to quasi-sanction by some media who refuse to grasp the essence of this complex issue.


Peter S. Morris
Associate Director of University Relations
Memorial University of Newfoundland

Wanda Young and Roy Daley

Memorial University to appeal decision

Memorial University has decided to appeal the decision rendered in the recent provincial Supreme Court case involving former student Wanda Young. Yesterday a jury of six found in favour of Ms. Young in the civil suit. The university disagrees with this decision and will, on the advice of its legal counsel, exercise its right to launch an appeal.

Wanda Young

Former MUN student claims defamation

CBC Newfoundland Sep 24 2003

ST. JOHN'S - The Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador is hearing an unusual case claiming defamation against Memorial University and one of its professors.

In 1994, the university warned the province's child protection services that a student, Wanda Young, could be abusing children.

Two years later, Young got a phone call from a child protection worker, demanding that she see him immediately. Young was suspected of sexually abusing children. The suspicion was raised by Young's former professor, Leslie Bella.

Young had written an assignment for Bella about juvenile sex offenders. Attached was a first person account from a young person detailing her sexual abuse of children.

According to court documents, Bella believed Young herself wrote the story as a desperate cry for help.

The professor noted the case study was not properly footnoted. Young testified that she copied the story directly from a book by a well known author in the field.

Young's lawyer says Bella and others at Memorial misled child protection workers. They were shown only one page of the 12-page paper.

Elizabeth Crawford, a former director of child welfare, has testified that if she had been given a complete copy of the assignment, the matter would have been dropped.

Crawford and the child protection worker have apologized to Young.

While the abuse allegation was cleared up, Young claims the incident put in motion a series of events that affected her reputation and her ability to pursue a career in social work.

But the defence maintains Bella and Memorial were obligated to report their suspicions under the Child Welfare Act. Leslie Bella will testify Wednesday.

Leslie Bella

Abuse fears justified report: professor

ST. JOHN'S - A Memorial University social work professor being sued for defamation by a former student defended her actions in Supreme Court Thursday. Leslie Bella says she had to act on her suspicions Wanda Young had sexually abused children.

Bella says in 1994, there was a heightened awareness of child sexual abuse in the province. She referred to Mount Cashel orphanage, where she says people in authority should have acted but didn't.

When Bella read a term paper by Young, she informed child welfare the student could be abusing children. A child protection worker wouldn't act on the concerns because there was no child identified in the essay.

The worker advised Bella to meet with Young, the same advice a senior colleague had given her, but she ignored their advice.

The professor says, in the atmosphere of the time, she chose to seek further advice from her director. Searched student's file

Bella also attempted to find names of children who might be in danger by checking Young's university file, where she found none listed.

Gillian Butler, Young's lawyer, suggested to Bella that checking the file was inappropriate. Bella says because it was a question of a child possibly being at risk, it was a reasonably unobtrusive step to take.

In her lawsuit, Young also names the university and the former director of the school of social work.

Defamation or duty?

Is negligent behaviour as damaging as malicious behaviour? It certainly can be. Take, for example, the situation faced by Wanda Young.

In 1994, when the 23-year-old MUN [*] student submitted her final paper for a distance education course, she set into motion a bizarre chain of events. Her paper on juvenile sex offenders included a case study, attached as an appendix. The case study was copied directly from a textbook, but was not footnoted. It was, however, referenced in her paper and listed in her bibliography.

The case study was a narrative of a female, written in the first person, who had been abused as a child and in turn abused children when she was older.

The professor to whom the paper was submitted, Dr. Leslie Bella, reported to Child Protection Services that she was concerned Young was in fact the author of the case study, and that she may have been a child abuser.

Dr. Bella did not meet with Young to discuss the content of the case study or her concerns.

For more than two years, the complaint was transferred within Child Protection Services from person to person and office to office. In the words of Court of Appeal Justice Gail Welsh, "When action was finally taken, the investigation required just one meeting and was completed the following day." The problem is, that over the course of the two years the complaint resided with Child Protection Services, Young's reputation was under steady attack.

In 1998, Wanda Young launched a lawsuit for defamation and negligence against Bella, as well as the director of the School of Social Work, William Rowe, and their employer, MUN.

A civil jury - and it's extremely rare for a civil jury to decide both liability and compensation for civil (non-criminal) matters - addressed eight questions posed by trial judge Leo Barry. The lawyers representing Young, the professors and the university had significant input as to what the questions would be. The jury answered each of the eight questions in favour of Young.

After hearing from 21 witnesses during a three-week trial, the jury decided Young had indeed been the victim of a negligence conduct that had far-reaching effects on her life and her future. Not only that, it awarded her a whopping $839,000.00 in damages.

Last week, our Court of Appeal reversed that decision.

I disagree with its decision.

At the heart of the lawsuit was the Child Welfare Act, which imposes upon people a duty to report any information about suspected child abuse.

There is no doubt the purpose of that duty to report - and prevent child abuse - is admirable.

The Act also, however, obligates the person doing the reporting to "report all the information in his or her possession." It goes on to say you can't sue someone who makes a false report about you unless they made the report "maliciously or without reasonable cause."

Doesn't that mean an individual who either makes a malicious report or who reports without reasonable cause may be sued? And isn't reporting without reasonable cause the same thing as being negligent?

Some will argue that in order to encourage people to report suspected child abuse, it's necessary to protect them from lawsuits. True. But reporting without reasonable cause is one of only two situations that would leave you open to being sued.

When Bella reported her suspicions about Wanda Young to Child Protection Services, she did not have reasonable cause. Her concern about the origin of the case study would likely have evaporated if she had taken the time to call or meet with Young and simply asked where it came from. (True, Young did not properly document the source of the case study and, for that, could have been the subject of academic reprimand. That, however, is a far cry from being a suspected child abuser.)

It could even be argued that a professor at the School of Social Work might be held to a higher standard than the average person. Who, after all, is better qualified to understand the ramifications of making unsupported allegations of child abuse?

Bella and William Rowe also failed to provide Young's term paper to Child Protection Services when they reported their suspicions. They chose instead to merely submit the one-page case study. Doesn't that mean they failed to submit all of the relevant information in their possession? In fairness to Young, the case study should not have been presented to Child Protection Services in a different context than the one in which she presented it to her professor.

The acting director of the School of Social Work (with whom Bella had met to express her concern Young was a child abuser) said at trial she had not even read the term paper and did not realize the case study was referenced in it.

It is true, the professors - and by extension the university - may not have acted with malice. They did, however, act with a wanton disregard for their student.

As for Child Protection Services, considering it took two years of dithering before the complaint was investigated (and then dispensed with in a matter of hours), it's a good thing there really weren't any children being abused.

Her lawyer calls Young "a tragic victim of circumstance." I call her a tragic victim of poor judgment.

Wanda Young

Wanda Young update

The court battle is not yet over for former Memorial student Wanda Young.

The university appealed the controversial jury verdict that awarded Young $839,400 in damages for an investigation for sexually assaulting children, began by her professors.

MUN's statement says "[The jury award for the case was] excessive and wholly out of proportion to the . . . evidence," and that the judge's work in handling the case was flawed.

The settlement was based on Young's projected earnings if she had continued her studies in social work, even though she was never admitted to the school. The defendants felt Young's projected earnings were unreasonable.

During the case, Justice Leo Barry concluded that there was no defamation. However, he allowed the jury to rule on other aspects. The university feels the entire case should have been taken from the jury once the judge decided there was no defamation.

In the appeal, Young is asking for an increased settlement to cover interest from the previous verdict, as well as her legal fees.

Term paper confusion sparks child abuse inquiry and $839,00 damages

ST. JOHN'S -- An improperly footnoted term paper by a social work student and hasty action by Memorial University of Newfoundland professors caused a serious child abuse investigation. The result is an $839,400 judgement against the university. Both sides are appealing the decision.

Ten years ago Wanda Young was a third-year student at the university who, in the final paper for her social work course, appended a first-person account about juvenile sex offenders. The appended copy was not properly foot-noted leading her professor, Leslie Bella, to believe that the first hand account was a "cry for help" rather than reference material.

Bella, along with the then director of the school's social work department, ignored advice given by child protection workers and an administrator in her department to meet with Young to discuss her suspicions directly. Instead, a report was filed with authorities causing Young's applications for work in the field to be red-tagged until in 1996 she was contacted by a case worker. The two and a half year delay between Young submitting her final paper for a school project to talking to the case worker stemmed from a series of delays at the child welfare department.

The problem was quickly resolved once Young became aware that she was the subject of an investigation by showing the caseworker the reference book from which she had taken the appended account.

However, the rumors about Wanda Young lasted until October of this year, a six-person Newfoundland Supreme Court jury found that the university and its professors were negligent in making the report of suspected child abuse.

They also found them to have breached "the duty of care" owed to students when they report. The breach resulted in her "pain, suffering, loss of reputation and loss of enjoyment of life."

The award is based on Young's projected earnings if she had continued in social work even though she was never admitted to the school of social work.

In its appeal MUN claims that the judge erred by allowing the jury to rule on other aspects of the case after he concluded that there had been no defamation. Young is also appealing her award asking for an increased settlement to cover interest from the previous verdict and her legal costs.