The Pastorcic family needed healing when their third child, a baby girl, died months after birth. Too many bad memories in the old home. So they bought a new bungalow in East Vancouver on Kitchener, a quiet street lined with giant maples, and pressed on.
As the young family settled in, visits from the friendly man across the street were welcomed. He offered to help with plumbing and little fixes around the house, and the Pastorcics began to socialize with the man’s family.
Susanna Pastorcic was about nine then. Although she is clear on the details of what the man did to her, she isn’t quite sure of the date, but it was likely some time in 1978.
The neighbours had come over for dinner and the man and her father were drinking so heavily that her father passed out. The two mothers were playing cards in the kitchen, and Susanna was in the living room with the neighbours’ daughter. Susanna lay on the couch with a blanket covering her.
The man — he was in his 50s and he seemed big — came into the living room and sat beside her. He put his hands under the blanket. And Susanna didn’t understand why, didn’t know what to say or do, when the man put his fingers inside her.
For some reason Susanna couldn’t tell her parents. In the following months the man kept coming over, friendly as ever. When she heard his voice she would run and hide in the closet. She was afraid he would do it again. Susanna’s parents noticed the abrupt change in her behaviour. But she couldn’t explain what she was feeling: How could this happen where I should be most safe?
She started running away and misbehaving at school, drinking and partying with boys. Her parents had lost control by the time she was 12. Government social workers got involved. The state pursued a youth court order, which Susanna says her parents fought but finally agreed to, making Susanna apermanent ward.
She was placed in a coed foster home where drinking and sex were rampant, she recalls, and things got worse. At 13 she was put in the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre, where she stayed until she was released almost five years later.
Susanna Pakkala (née Pastorcic), now 45, anxiously pats a thick book of documents on the table in front of her. This is the story of her life. She taps the pages harder, angrier, as the emotion wells up.
She’s at her mother’s B.C. Housing apartment on Nanaimo Street, not far from the old home on Kitchener. On a couch behind her, sharing a set of iPod earphones, are her two teenage girls, 13-year-old Natasha and 16-year-old Megan.
Every day, Susanna comes here from her Downtown Eastside single-room hotel to visit the girls and their brother Matthew, 17. Her mother, Lillian, takes care of the kids while Susanna struggles to stabilize her life.
Everything Susanna does is aimed at reconnecting with the children. In the 1980s, when she was released from The Maples, she went straight to the Downtown Eastside. She prostituted herself to pay for the cocaine and booze that she used to numb the pain that the pedophile caused. It was Vancouver’s grimmest time, when Robert Pickton was prowling the downtown’s heroin-scarred streets with impunity. One of the girls Susanna knew from The Maples was eventually killed on his farm, she says.
Disconnected from her children, Susanna tried to kill herself several times, waking up with a priest in her room at Burnaby General Hospital once. But she survived — and she stopped abusing drugs in 2010.
After reading a series of stories in The Province that showed youth in B.C. are being channelled through the youth court system and “warehoused” in facilities like The Maples due to the province’s lack of suitable mental-health treatment options, Susanna’s nightmares came back.
She decided to call a reporter and share her story, for several reasons. She believes this could be the last chance to make accountable her unpunished abuser and the system that blocked her attempt at justice. Also, she believes mental-health-care options in B.C. must increase and improve and that The Maples — if treatment today in any way resembles her time there — should be shut down.
“I have a lot of mental and physical scars from what they did at The Maples,” she says. “They treated me like a drug rat in the lab. I can’t even go to that neighbourhood any more.”
Last year, Susanna started to investigate her past. In 1982, she reported the neighbour’s sexual abuse to a doctor and staff at The Maples and a case was opened with Burnaby RCMP and Vancouver police. But it never advanced and she was never told why.
In 2012 she obtained personal documents from The Maples, Vancouver police and the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD).
“What I’m learning is the bad things that happened in my life are not my fault,” she says, pulling forms from a filing box.
“I found out there was a sex-offender criminal that was let go. He got to have his home, his children and family, but Su got locked up because I had issues, because I got abused. I was treated like the criminal.”
Historical and recent documents obtained by The Province indicate an investigation against Susanna’s abuser was dropped, likely because state guardians thought the process wasn’t “in the best interests” of the victim.
“This case has been discussed with the (ministry social) worker and Crown counsel,” a September 1982 Vancouver police investigation form says. “It has been decided both parties being aware of all the facts not to proceed with charges … based on the additional mental strain that would be placed on the victim.”
Last year, Susanna applied for counselling benefits under B.C.’s Victims of Crime Act, and a November 2012 government adjudication report found: “Based on the information contained in the application, the police report and (historical police) file, there is sufficient information to conclude on a balance of probabilities that Ms. Pakkala is a victim of crime.
“Professionals involved in her care expressed concern that continued police investigation, and possible court involvement, may jeopardize Ms. Pakkala’s progress in treatment,” the report says. “This affected the police collection of evidence.”
There is no statute of limitations on the alleged crime, Vancouver police informed Susanna in 2012, when she asked them to reopen her case. Investigators located her abuser, now in his 80s, in a private-care home. Susanna was told he could not be questioned due to diminished mental capacity. A lawyer specializing in civil cases also believes the man sexually abused Susanna, but the lawyer states the man has no assets to go after, documents show.
VPD spokesman Const. Brian Montague told The Province he couldn’t confirm whether Susanna’s abuser was ever interviewed by police in 1982, because of difficulties accessing archives. Burnaby RCMP’s investigation records were destroyed years ago in standard housekeeping.
If state guardians and staff at The Maples had at least asked the victim what she wanted, Susanna’s fate could have been altered, she believes.
“In my mind, they took my life away — no girl’s right to justice should be taken away,” she cries, her voice strangled into a faint gurgle of raw emotion ... indignation, grief, rage.
“Now, police say that he wouldn’t be mentally able to stand trial. Well, why didn’t they charge him when I was 13? Why didn’t The Maples deal with the real stuff, and not the mumbo-jumbo?”
That is the argument Susanna continues to make with the Ministry of Children and Family Development and B.C.’s ombudsperson. She wants the authorities’ choice to be examined and she wants laws changed so that children in her position now would have a say in justice decisions that will have lasting impacts.
“Looking back over my life, I am convinced that this decision has had an incredibly destructive impact on me,” she wrote to the ombudsperson in November 2012.
“If I had been able to deal with the issue of my abuse when I was younger ... my life would have been much better. I feel like now I cannot get any justice, but I could have in 1982.”
When Susanna reads the historical documents on her time at The Maples, other issues of consenttrouble her. One document suggests staff suspected she was impregnated by a boy inmate at the coed facility, “and they decided that they would go ahead and give me this abortion pill,” Susanna says. “I still don’t know to this day if I was pregnant, but it was my right to know.”
Susanna remembers she was prone to suicide attempts in the facility, and that she often refused to co-operate with staff. She remembers getting sent to the “mud room” in the cellar, to sleep on a tile floor. Documents show a heavy regimen of drugs were administered to Susanna, and indicate she was often placed in the isolation “pink room” for up to four hours at a time. Susanna says she still has injection scars from staffers that “forced drugsinto me.”
“I was highly medicated and most of the time I was a zombie,” she recalls. “And they knew I was sexually abused, OK, so they should never have had men staff on top of me (to inject drugs.) That’s the worst of this.”
Susanna says she wants compensation for damages in her case, and assurances that treatment techniques at The Maples that she views as traumatic are not continuing.
Her letter to the ombudsperson concludes: “I would like for MCFD (which was called the Ministry of Human Resources) to recognize that they made mistakes when they were acting as my guardian ... and to apologize. I would like the policy of MCFD, in its role as guardian, of making decisions for youth in care, to be examined.”
The Province asked for interviews with Ministry of Children and Family Development officials and Maples staff, both on Susanna’s case history and modern treatment standards at The Maples.
Minister Stephanie Cadieux said she can’t comment on specific cases or “allegations” around Susanna’s treatment or decisions made on her behalf over 30 years ago. A ministry spokesperson said administrators at The Maples, which deals with the most serious youth mental-health cases, could not be interviewed.
At Lillian Pastorcic’s apartment on Nanaimo, Susanna has gone outside for a smoke with her counsellor after breaking down emotionally while discussing her files. Lillian, an immigrant from Croatia, nods toward her two granddaughters.
“Susanna is in a living hell. You know when one person is in The Inferno? They are pulling the rest of us in, and my family gets sicker every day,” she says. “The Maples told us they believed she was sexually abused, but why didn’t they do anything?”
Susanna comes back inside, says, “Whoa, that feels better,” and breathes deeply.
Her son, Matthew, returns from hockey practice with Susanna’s brother.
Matthew says he went through a confusing time a few years ago, running with bad kids and doing drugs. But now he’s in church every Sunday and praying for Susanna’s healing.
It was a few years ago that Matthew gave Susanna the large pink crucifix that she wears.
“Keep fighting mommy. God will get you through,” he said.
“He wants me to go to church, and I haven’t yet, but I never take this off,” Susanna says, holding the cross.
Susanna says lots of people tell her the past is the past, and she has to move on. But she can’t, until that immense injustice, the callous destruction of a girl’s innocence, is corrected.
“Before I get sick and die,” she says, “I’d like to see this come to a close."
Author: Sam Cooper, The Province
Date: March 10, 2013