Georgette Fiola always knew her mother didn't approve of her caring for foster children in her home in Lorette, Man.
But she never thought her mother would falsely accuse her of abusing the children by saying that she had locked them in the basement, kicked them, fed them table scraps and had hit one child so hard in the testicles they had to be removed.
The allegations led provincial officials to take the foster children away from her and terminate her licence to operate.
Ms. Fiola sued her mother for defamation, and this week a judge ordered 87-year-old Delia LeBrun to pay her daughter nearly $500,000 in damages. Mr. Justice John Scurfield of the Court of Queen's Bench ruled there was "not a scintilla of evidence" to suggest any abuse. "She was simply trying to hurt her daughter."
The award is one of the largest defamation judgments in Manitoba history, and Ms. Fiola says she has no regrets about suing because her mother ruined her reputation and her livelihood. She is also suing the province's Child and Family Services Department to get her licence back.
"I always took her comments in stride, you know, that's my mother," Ms. Fiola said yesterday from her home in Lorette, about 12 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg. "I said, 'Well, she's getting old, let her be. She's your grandmother. She's my mother. Let her be, let her be.' But this was over the board."
For her part, Ms. LeBrun denied saying anything defamatory and added she can't afford to pay the damages. "I've got no money to give her," she said yesterday from her home in Winnipeg. "I've only got $30,000 in my account and that's to bury myself."
Ms. LeBrun said she helped her daughter and her children for years. "It's very sad. She is bad for me. Can she put me in jail if I don't pay?"
The case began on Sept. 9, 1997, when officials from Child and Family Services suddenly snatched a group of foster children and adults from Ms. Fiola's home and called the RCMP to investigate. No charges were laid.
Ms. Fiola had been caring for foster children since 1986 and had modified her home to take in as many as five at a time, many with special needs. There had not been any previous complaints against her, and her home was routinely inspected by provincial officials who never raised concerns. She grossed more than $100,000 a year from the service.
She was never told why she was under investigation. CFS officials would say only that a complaint was filed by someone whose name was being kept confidential.
The fallout was immediate. Ms. Fiola lost her business. Her family was shunned by townsfolk. "It was awful," she said yesterday. "You shy away from the community, you shy away from church, you shy away from your friends."
She sued CFS and it was only through a chance discovery of a document filed as part of that lawsuit that she learned her mother had lodged the complaint.
Ms. Fiola said she felt awful because she had always tried to remain close to her mother. "Every Sunday I used to send one of my [foster] children to pick her up and then take everyone to a restaurant," she said.
Judge Scurfield said Ms. LeBrun filed the complaint because she was still mad at her daughter about a dispute that summer. During a family wedding in August, 1997, Ms. LeBrun called one of Ms. Fiola's native foster children "a goddamn savage," the judge said. Ms. Fiola rebuked her mother and Judge Scurfield said that conflict led Ms. LeBrun to file the complaint.
During the trial, a social worker, a baby-sitter and a former resident all testified that Ms. Fiola provided a "warm and loving environment," the judge said. Ms. LeBrun "did not call a shred of evidence to support" her complaint. Ms. LeBrun's lawyer, Kevin Cadloff, refused to comment.
The judge awarded $475,600 in damages plus interest and court costs. He called Ms. LeBrun's actions vile and added she "set out to deliberately injure [Ms. Fiola] and she succeeded. She must now bear the consequences."
Alain Hogue, a lawyer representing Ms. Fiola, said he plans to use the judgment in the case against CFS. He added that the agency has not provided any other evidence of mistreatment, and an aboriginal group has asked that Ms. Fiola be allowed to take in children again.
Officials from CFS would not comment.
Ms. Fiola said she wants the province to change legislation that allows CFS to keep the names of complainants confidential. And she hopes other foster parents who have faced similar false allegations will join her cause.
"I want to tell foster parents never to give up," she said. "Fight until your last breath to have your kids back. It might take a long time, it did for me, but I am happy today and I am fighting now to be reinstated to have my licence back."