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Lessons learned after sexual exploitation of Deaf students in Maine

Posted April 14, 2013, at 1:28 p.m.

Cases of institutional sexual abuse, while horrific in nature and extent, are hopefully accompanied by lessons learned. In the early 1980s, an investigation revealed students at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf were routinely sexually abused and physically beaten. The abuse was inflicted on a very vulnerable population: Deaf children with little to no possibility of being recognized as victims of such consistent exploitation and manipulation.

In June 2001, the Maine Legislature authorized the Baxter Compensation Authority to recognize and compensate those former students who were sexually and physically abused at the Governor Baxter School in Falmouth. It was a program with roots nurtured by a few courageous members of Maine’s Deaf community in concert with dedicated hearing colleagues. The goal was to bring recognition and validation to an issue that had been dismissed since the disclosure of abuse at the school in 1982.

In April 2002, I had the honor to be selected as the authority’s executive director. The first days were consumed with logistical tasks, and we finally met the first claimants in October 2002.

We were confident that the compensation process was sound but terrified of what traumatic consequences might be born from people reliving the experiences of abuse by finally having the opportunities to tell their stories. We knew that the impacts of such abuse were long-lasting and wide-ranging. We feared the worst: possible suicide or unleashed rage set upon friends, families and strangers.

For three years, authority staff and adjudicators bore witness to the atrocities of decades of abuse suffered by children entrusted to Maine’s school for the Deaf. There is little doubt that the suffering continues, but to our knowledge there has been but one suicide: that of James Lavier, who in desperation held police at bay for more than an hour with a shotgun in a Shop ’n Save parking lot in March 2002. Finally he aimed his rifle at police, who responded by shooting and killing James. There were no shotgun shells in James’ rifle. They called it “suicide by cop.”

For those eligible for compensation, a cash payment was made along with an apology from the state of Maine signed by the governor, speaker of the House of Representatives and the president of the Senate. We all did this work knowing that money and apologies would never repair the damage that had been done to the children, their future wives and husbands, and their children. As Gov. Angus King stated when addressing Maine’s Deaf community at an authority forum, “The abuse of a child is the abuse of a lifetime.”

I have been asked to speak at conferences about Maine’s response to the sexual and physical abuse at the school. Each presentation ends with lessons learned. I place lessons learned under two headings: “the price of complacency” and “the strength of will.”

The “price of complacency” relates to those in authority who for years fully accepted explanations from the perpetrators of abuse that complaints about possible sexual and physical abuse stemmed from discontented employees and parents — and would be handled. The most important part of the lesson is the notion that those in authority then (or today) could be any one of us who take comfort that people we know and trust would never be capable of abusing anyone, let alone children.

I often admit that given the right circumstances, I may very well have been one who was complacent and comfortably accepted the word of a colleague. Now wiser, I caution anyone who will listen to never let complacency rule for the sake of comfort. The price — in the case of Baxter and many others — is too costly.

However, in the midst of all of this is “the strength of will.” Maine’s Deaf community came together as one, determined to have stories of abuse told, determined to bring long-awaited accountability and recognition to the issue of institutional sexual and physical abuse. It began with four people and grew to all of Maine’s Deaf community. It captured the attention of the governor, the Legislature and, later, countless others. Their stories and resolve as a community demonstrated to the rest of our state that the lessons from then must be the lessons of now.

The lessons continue to this day. The more we realize that these stories of institutional sexual and physical abuse are not just those of years ago, but are still capable of happening today, the more we are likely to respond before more people are hurt. An informed community is a safer community, and Maine’s Deaf community taught us that. Let’s not forget it.

John Shattuck was the director of the Baxter Compensation Authority from 2002 to 2006 and is now a lecturer at the University of Maine. He may be reached at john.g.shattuck@maine.gov.

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