By Grace Kennedy
Note: graphic content.
Wanda Taylor was a toddler when she was taken from her mother.
Taylor’s mother, coming home from work in the early ’70s, was hit by drunk driver outside her East Preston home. She remained in the hospital for months; her children looked after themselves until someone contacted Child Welfare Services.
Taylor and her sister – both toddlers – were placed in a foster home. Her other siblings were taken to the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children.
Eventually, Taylor’s mother left the hospital and gathered her children. Her siblings didn’t talk about their time in the home.
It was only after allegations of abuse against the home became public in the ’90s that Taylor’s older sister shared her experiences with her.
Their brother was forced to fight another boy when in the home, she told Taylor over the phone. The other boy, egged on by a staff member, bit their brother’s finger so hard that blood ran out of the boy’s mouth. Taylor’s sister and another girl were occasionally isolated in an unheated part of the home with a “mysterious staff.” This staff member did not speak to them – simply stared.
Her sister’s experience, and others like it, is shared in Taylor’s newest book The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children: The Hurt, the Hope, and the Healing. Released at the end of 2015 by Nimbus Publishing, The book delves into the stories of former residents and social workers, and outlines the history of the home itself.
The theme book was influenced by Taylor’s background in social work.
“I was looking at it through the lens of the protection of children, so all the way through I kept weaving through, where did we go wrong in how we protect children,” she said. “I kept making it about society, that we’re all responsible … and how come we can’t still protect children from harm.”
The idea for the book first came from the stories shared by her sister and other family members, but it soon expanded to include the stories of other people. In the four years Taylor spent writing and researching the book, she interviewed former residents in person and over the phone.
“I said to one of my friends who is also a social worker – it’s almost like PTSD, because it was such an emotional rollercoaster,” she said. “Some of them I actually cried with them when they were telling their stories, and some of them we were just silent for a long, long time while they started processing.”
This was the case with a woman Taylor calls Lisa. Lisa – not her real name – was left home alone by her white mother when she was four. As an adult, Lisa attempted to reunite with her mother; Lisa told Taylor her mother did not take any responsibility for what had happened to her children.
“There was a moment where she was talking, and she started talking about her mom,” Taylor said. “She stopped and it was dead silence. And then she just started crying. Her crying was like a child crying – it was so painful for her. And then I started crying.”
After years in foster care, Lisa ended up at the home. There, she told Taylor, she was repeatedly abused.
A male staff member would sexually assault her while she was showering; while in the hospital after being hit by a car, the same staff member visited the hospital and molested her.
Other residents had similar stories. Garnet Smith recalled how the boys would have to preform oral sex on one female staff member after brushing their teeth. Starann Johnson’s younger siblings were put into foster care without her knowledge. Never having enough to eat, never having adequate clothing and never receiving medical care were all common themes in the stories.
Cheryl Talbot, a former foster child and resident of the home, said these stories are important for helping others on their journey towards healing.
“To me, it’s getting these people to come forward, it’s getting them to understand it’s nothing they did wrong,” she said. “They didn’t do this.”
Talbot was a resident of the home as a baby in the late 1950s, after her foster family dropped off her and her sister at the home for financial reasons. She was only there a few weeks – her foster family came to bring her back but left her sister.
“I know these years of hiding the pain and shame are what they have experienced growing up as a foster child,” she continued. “But until they get to that point where they can say ‘You know what, this happened to me, I didn’t do any of these bad things.’ Then they can accept their healing.”
Others have found different ways of healing. A class action lawsuit was filed against the government of Nova Scotia and the Home for Colored Children – in 2013, the home agreed to pay $5 million to residents who had lived at the home between 1921 and 1989. A year later, the province added $29 million to the settlement. More than 140 former residents filed in the lawsuit.
People who lived at the home were eligible to receive compensation based on the length of time they had lived there. Those who suffered severe harm, such as rape and severe injuries, were able to apply for additional compensation.
Former residents will be able to bring their experiences to a restorative inquiry. The inquiry – currently underway – aims to uncover what happened, while providing a public forum for people to share their stories.
But some are still coming to Taylor to share their experiences. Many have suggested she should write a second book about the home.
“At this point, I just keep the door open,” she said. “We’ll see what happens with it.”