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The Vopni family

Lives ruined when officials heed only children

Vopni family

Editor's Note: The following personal viewpoint was written by the parents featured in the story Another Family Destroyed (SP March 27). They cannot be identified because to do so would contravene a court order that protects the identity of the children involved.

We, as a married couple, made a choice to help needy people. We didn't go to a Third World country. We opened our home and our lives to children who were disadvantaged because of their birth mother drinking alcohol while pregnant.

We adopted older children who needed a home, children who might never had been adopted because of their birth defects.

Even though Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is 100-per-cent preventable, there are many, many children being born today with this disorder.

We had biological children before we adopted. As a family, we gave everything we could to help the adopted children. We loved them as our own and there was never a reference made about "who came from where."

We all lived with the results of FASD -- learning inefficiencies, inability to project consequences, trouble separating fact from fantasy, behavioural problems including lying and stealing. Among all of this, we were still able to be a very public family that participated often at many community functions and activities.

In order to do our best in providing for these children, we researched FASD. Our eldest discovered a book about a family who used a therapy program that helped. This led us to the Hope Centre which developed programs that made it possible for even our most severely FASD child to begin to learn and begin to overcome some of the most traumatic behavioural problems.

The program took hours of daily one-on-one therapy -- a parent working with each child individually. The program helped the children develop in areas of memory retention, speech, gross and fine motor ability and academics. We were also able to give children with learning inefficiencies skills in music, art and dance which gave each child a talent that provided much-needed self-esteem. We always felt that there was hope for these children.

We had spent years of our lives loving, caring for and helping children who had a lot of problems. It was not easy. Any family that has adopted FASD children would know what we mean.

Older siblings were not resentful of parents' time spent with younger siblings. We did not have a lot of financial resources. We shared what we had and gave of our love and time.

Then, one day, after authorities spoke to two adopted daughters for about 45 minutes each, we were told that they were apprehending four of our children and charging three family members. We were (and still are) in shock.

We had no idea what happened or what this was about. We did not know what to do. We really felt that someone would talk to us and this would all be sorted out.

This never happened. In fact, we, and others are still wondering why no one ever listens to parents, family friends and older siblings. Where is the "balance" in all of this?

Our lives changed forever. We were told that we are not allowed to know where our children are or to see our children. Over the years, we have tried to get a change to the order that separates our family. Everything is denied and now we have been separated for almost three years.

Young people in our family have had to live with criminal charges for years, have had to cancel career and educational plans, have tried to hide from it all, have tried moving away and running away.

Nothing helps, except our family's faith in God and our knowledge that we did help children and that they had a family, they were loved and were given a chance at a productive life which, unfortunately, was taken away from them.

Our older children continue to be thoughtful, kind, caring individuals. Two of them have worked as volunteers in Third World countries. One continues to work with special needs children. They are trying to carry on under circumstances that only others who have lived with FASD children and have been falsely accused can ever understand.

Reporter Sarah Gibb is one of the very few people who has taken the time to research our family's life and story, talk to people who knew us well, and talk to FASD professionals.

The public needs to realize what can happen when:

- Children tell stories,

- People in roles of leadership feel they must report to Social Services,

- No one takes the time or cares to talk to the family, to others who know the family or to professionals who work with FASD children.

Canada may be a great country but changes need to made to some of our government agencies so that it is safe for everyone.

Update from the Vopni family

Social Services and the Justice System has broken this family in two - three children remain in foster care after 1 year and 7 months and there seems to be nothing that the Vopnis can do to change that. Vopnis have tried everything. Social Services will not listen to parents or older siblings.

A variety of criminal charges were laid against 3 family members - Charges against one family member were stayed - another family member had one charge stayed and was found not guilty on the other charge and third family member was found guilty. That case was appealed and Judge Gerry Allbright there to be insufficiient evidence. The Crown has now appealed Judge Albright's finding. states "What we are calling for is accountability to an outside agency: Indiscriminate removal of children must stop, as well as harrassment of parents who have done no wrong. Wrongful removal is child abuse, and months or years of costly court cases forcing parents into bankruptcy is a national disgrace."

The Vopni family has followed all court and social service orders including those that did not allow them to see their children, and orders that prevented Aaron from living with his father and brothers when he was returned home after 5 weeks in foster care and at a cost of several thousand dollars to his family.

Family members that have been allowed to stay together are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives: Derek after 1 1/2 years of difficulty finding a job (including difficulties caused by a CPIC placed on his 'criminal' record) has a position that he enjoys with Living Books. Rebecca is continuing to teach music and is currently organising a new venture - a summer music/dance camp in rural Saskatchewan and is assisting several senior students that would like to make music a career.

Even though Rebecca and Derek no longer have the 'backup' of an organised church (it was their church that 'turned the family in' to Social Services) they are looking for ways to work with youth and taking a small group to YC2003, a large (15,000 young people) youth conference in Alberta in May. Because of the location of their jobs, Derek is now based in Saskatoon and Rebecca in Tisdale.

The family no longer has a home as their home was sold to help pay for legal and other costs. Alicia is continuing to teach music but is now once again planning to complete her bachelor's degree and is also planning to complete her dance teacher's credentials later this year. David has possibly given up on working in the mission field but is now considering taking mechanics training. Frederick, who went to work full time at the age of 16, is trying to complete his high school while working full time at a Seed Plant. He is also taking seed plant operator training. Aaron, after being allowed to live with his family, has excelled in many areas including in music, dance and cadets and has received several awards including Saskatchewan Junior Citizen of the Year 2002. Aaron is planning on completing his dance teaching credentials later this year, is starting a B.Mus. programme and may study law after completion of his bachelor's degree.

They do not know how the children that remain in foster care are doing but assume that there is little hope of any type of future for them.

This family gave all their time, love, and resources to help some special needs children and have had to sell what they did own (home, land and cattle) in order to pay for legal costs because of the allegations made against them.

If this is how society feels that families that are willing to help needy Canadian children should be treated, then there will never be any help for children born due to no fault of their own with FAS and other special needs.

You may have seen them perform -- at music or highland dance festivals, at athletic events -- the Vopnis are high achievers and they have overcome obstacles to become the recipients of many awards both as a family and as individuals. Mom, Dad, two biological and five adopted children -- accomplished and energetic . . . All that changed September 19, 2001 when biological son Aaron and the three of his adopted siblings were apprehended. It would take them months to find out anything about what was going on. It had all begun with a busy-body 14 year old girl who was at Team Canada camp with one of the Vopnis.

Derek Vopni and Rebecca Hankins were married on August 16, 1975 at age 20. Soon Derek completed a B.S.A. degree majoring in Agricultural Economics and Rebecca completed A.T.C.L. (piano performance), B.A. (music) and L.T.C.L. (piano pedagogy).

Alicia was born in 1980. Rebecca stopped performing with the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra and quit her job at Yamaha Music and became a La Leche League leader and taught music privately. Derek was employed by Federated Cooperatives Limited.

They decided to adopt a special needs child and David (age 2) joined the family in 1984. Aaron was born in 1985. They then applied to adopt another child. Eventually they received a call from Social Services and adopted Clara (age 2 1/2) in 1990. Clara had been diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. They believed that there is hope for all children and that all children need a family.

Derek and Rebecca purchased a small farm shortly after Clara's adoption. Several months later they received a call from Social Services informing them that Clara had two siblings: would the Vopni family like contact with them? They decided that families need to be together and they would, therefore, adopt these children. Then they learned there were actually three siblings.

In 1991 they adopted Frederick 6, Aldina 4, and Ole age 2. These children all had the same alcoholic birth mom. The adoptions were not finalized for over a year as the Vopnis were home schooling, a practice of which social services did not approve. The Department of Education - Director for Private Schools, Rebecca's cousin - a lawyer, and the Adoptive Parents Association all worked with the Vopnis to get the adoptions finalized.

Derek was no longer working full time - he did some farming but was primarily a full time dad taking occasional short term positions when Rebecca wasn't teaching music. She worked part time as a private music teacher which allowed her to schedule her teaching around their family's schedule.

By this time Alicia, David and Aaron had been home educated for some time and were doing well. The children were registered with Clonlara School (Michigan) and with the Tiger Lily School Division. The family designed programs for each child based on their abilities and interests. They believed in doing things as a family. They did unit studies together on topics of interest to the children.

The children were learning from each other and learning to help each other (older helping the younger). They were learning by example. Each child's learning programmes were adapted to each child's learning abilities and learning style. For example, Clara learned best by repetition so they repeated everything several times a day and also made tapes for her to listen to - some of the children were kinesthetic learners - some oral - some visual learners.

They also took part in activities at the skating rinks in Tisdale, Melfort and Star City - skating lessons, hockey, etc. The older children took swimming lessons with Aaron, Frederick and Aldina completing Bronze Medallion. They enjoyed swimming, hiking, camping, skiing, picnics, etc. together. The children all participated in animal care, gardening, meal preparation, preserving food, etc. Frederick wanted to see mountains so they found a family camp in the Rockies and went to the mountains. They took the children to museums, fairs, etc.

The older children were already studying music and the younger adopted children all wanted to play instruments also. Rebecca taught all of the children to play the instruments of their choice. For children with FAS this was very time consuming and took a lot of patience. All of the children were very pleased with their accomplishments.

  • Alicia plays flute, piano, recorder, sang and played guitar.
  • David played violin and fiddle, piano, percussion and guitar.
  • Frederick played violin and fiddle, clarinet and bass guitar.
  • Aaron plays trumpet, sang, played piano, guitar and fiddle.
  • Aldina played flute, piano and sang.
  • Clara played violin and fiddle and sang.
  • Ole played violin and fiddle and sang.

Alicia was studying dance and the other children soon wanted to dance also so soon they had:

  • Alicia - ballet and Highland Dance.
  • Aaron and Frederick - tap
  • Aaron - Highland Dance - he became a Saskatchewan Premier Highland Dancer.
  • Aldina - ballet and Highland Dance - she also became a Saskatchewan Premier Highland Dancer and represented Saskatchewan in National Competition in 2000.
  • Ole - Highland Dance

Soon the Vopni family was attending dance competitions in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba and the children were winning medals.

By the time Ole was four years old the entire family was performing together at local events, churches and soon not only in Melfort, Tisdale, Nipawin and Naicam but in Saskatoon, Kindersley, Watrous, etc. They received several awards for their family performances. They combined Christian music - Classical - folk - fiddle and dance and all their instruments, voices and piano with Alicia and Rebecca doing most of the arranging.

When they found that some of the children had learning difficulties they searched every where for help for them. They read and attended everything that they could find regarding FAS and learning difficulties. The programmes that helped the children to overcome their difficulties the most were NACD (discovered by Alicia in her reading) and the Hope Centre (discovered through an article in the Melfort Journal).

When she was 7 years old they enrolled Clara, who had the most problems, in the program and then spent 3 hours/day 7 days a week working on her individualized program while also continuing with everyone's home education, household and farming duties, gardening and music. They saw an immediate change in Clara - her behaviour and sleep problems all improved and she was able to learn even though it took a lot of time and patience. Progress was slow but there was progress.

They paid for this program themselves, not receiving any subsidies or grants. They paid for everything for the children including dental care, educational materials, special diets (two of the children had allergies), trips to Saskatoon for dance lessons (twice a week for Aldina when she was representing Saskatchewan), etc.

Soon they enrolled Aldina and Ole and were doing three programs (approx. 3 hours each) 6 days a week. They were very busy but saw such progress in the children. The children had come to them with many behaviour problems that they were slowly overcoming. There was a lot of hope for each child's future.

To their credit each of the children earned awards in something - even those children that had great difficulty learning - for example: one of the awards for each child was:

  • Alicia -Best performance - Melfort Music Festival (Wind instruments)
  • David - highest level attainable for down hill skiing in Sask.
  • Frederick - Most Valuable Player - Hockey
  • Aaron - Saskatchewan Junior Citizen of the Year 2002
  • Aldina - Best over all premier Dancer - Trophy - Saskatoon - 2000
  • Clara - First place Novice Fiddle Competition - Nipawin - age 8
  • Ole - Best over all dance - 10 and under - Saskatoon Dance Competition

Alicia started university studies at 16. David was employed at age 16. He completed Grade 12 and then studied missions. He did short term mission work in Mexico, Barbados, England and Israel. Frederick was enjoying working with animals, horse riding, hockey, swimming and skiing. Aaron was enjoying hockey, history, and air cadets. All the boys enjoyed building forts and rafts. Aldina particularly enjoyed swimming, dance and doing mom's hair. Clara enjoyed beading and the family pets. Ole enjoyed activities with with his older brothers particularly Aaron.

As a family, they had worked through many problems caused by FAS, years in foster care, medical and behaviour problems. They were unsure whether Clara would ever be able to live on her own but she would always have a family and a home with them; they felt that Aldina with help could probably have a job and contribute to society. David, who had medical problems at age 2, had been a healthy young man for years. Alicia, A.T.C.L., was planning on furthering her music studies and had been teaching music privately for several years. Aaron was thinking of a career in law. Frederick had an interest in missions and was enjoying his job as a carpenter's assistant. They felt that Ole would be able to contribute to society in some way. They had wanted to give children that may not have had much hope for a future a future and it seemed like the children would all have a future.

Two male RCMP officers accompanied by Social Services worker Susan Pasieka arrived at the Vopni home and took Rebecca into the police station for questioning. RCMP Constable Bonnie Campbell and Pasieka informed her that they were taking the kids because Derek and Rebecca physically, emotionally and sexually abused the children.

They told Rebecca that they had statements from the girls and a statement from Derek (this was later shown to be a lie -- Derek Vopni has not ever given a statement or testified in court . A judge later would quote him as saying that the girls had told him about the sexual activity and that he had told the girls that this was wrong) and that there would be charges laid. They told Rebecca that the girls were being seen by a doctor on Sept. 19, also a lie -- or, as they say, a "ruse."

Alicia did not complete her Bachelor's degree. David could not go back to Mexico. Frederick went to work full time until he suffered a car accident in which his neck was broken in three places left him in bed for a time.

Aaron was in a foster home and was not allowed to try out for the hockey team, take referee training, attend music lesson and rehearsals or championship dance class or see his family.

The three younger children were in foster care - their neuroeducational programmes from the Hope Centre were discontinued as was everything else that the family had arranged for them - music, dance, special diets, Sunday School. The family still has not seen these children since Sept. 19, 2001!

Social services made no effort to get correct information directly from the Vopni family. Efforts to to meet with them were sabotaged. Eventually, a meeting was arranged and held in Prince Albert during February, 2002. Although agreements were made, Social Services did not keep fulfil them.

Over 80 people sent letters of reference regarding the family and many stated that the allegations could not possibly be true. Over 300 people signed a petition supporting the Vopnis. Several lawyers they contacted told them YOU CANNOT FIGHT SOCIAL SERVICES. They have also contacted the office of the Children's Advocate, which specifically deals with issues arising from government services to children. They have not been helpful.

At that time they were in receipt of a letter, printed and signed by Ole Vopni which reads: "I miss my family a lot and would like to go home. I don't want to go to a different foster home in the summer. I wish could see my Mom and Dad again. I can see Aaron not to often. I'd like us all to be a family again." Ole Vopni

The person who helped Ole write this letter tried to encourage the Child Advocate to look into this matter; the advocate's office said that this doesn't warrant investigation unless Ole phones them directly. Ole Vopni was 12 years old then; he has FAS and a functioning IQ of 70. It is unlikely he will be able to make this phone call.

The Mandate of the Children's Advocate Office is to review issues raised concerning a child or youth receiving direct government services. In a letter dated May 9/02 they add a new idea to this by saying, ..."it is our practice to take direction for a child or youth if they are able to articulate their issues related to service they are receiving."