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Law student Ravneet Sidhu is part of a volunteer team combing through thousands of pages of old patient files from Woodlands School. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Law student Ravneet Sidhu is part of a volunteer team combing through thousands of pages of old patient files from Woodlands School. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

UBC law students search for justice for Woodlands School residents Add to ...

A handful of UBC law students are spending part of the summer poring over documents they hope will shine a light on the abuse and neglect of children and teens during a 22-year period at New Westminster’s notorious Woodlands School.

The students are participating in a last-minute push to complete the painstaking process of looking into whether 500 former residents were abused at the long-shuttered institution. They have until September, 2016, the deadline imposed by a B.C. Supreme Court judge earlier this year for them to file a claim with the provincial government.

In the ruling, the judge rejected a 10-year extension for the process requested by lawyers seeking compensation for clients who spent time at Woodlands, a facility for children with developmental disorders, as well as runaways and wards of the state.

Law student Ravneet Sidhu, who wants to be a corporate lawyer, first chased the pro bono Woodlands job for a chance to gain practical experience working directly with professionals at the class-action law firm Klein Lyons. But she soon found herself captivated with piecing together the murky and melancholic past of runaways, orphans and mentally disabled children, many of whom are now in their 60s and still battling the physical, mental and emotional scars of growing up at Woodlands.

“Some of them were admitted from three, four, five [years old], but then you get to read the file and you see them grow up and become adults,” Ms. Sidhu said from Montreal, where she is studying French before returning to work on the Woodlands project in August and going into her next year of law school.

She has now reviewed the time several former patients spent at Woodlands and said the hardest part has been learning how these people, often kids, were left to fend for themselves.

“A lot of the families were uninvolved and I can understand why they would be uninvolved; it’s very hard for them to see their child in that position,” Ms. Sidhu said.

The Woodlands School opened in 1950 at the former site of the Provincial Hospital for the Insane and was shuttered in 1996. Its last vestiges were demolished four years ago.

In 2009, B.C. agreed to give $3,000 to $150,000 to any one of about 1,000 former students who could prove they were abused at the facility after 1974, when a new law gave people the right to sue the provincial government. By December, 2013, the government had paid $2.3-million to survivors.

David Klein said his firm welcomed the first cohort of six UBC pro bono students to the file in May of last year and has now involved 14 in total, with hopes of adding up to 12 more students this summer.

The students volunteer a couple of hours a week reading through thousands of pages of hand-scrawled notes, written by the nurses and psychiatrists that ran Woodlands, to try to determine whether a former patient was abused or neglected. At the end of their review, they write up a memo declaring whether there is evidence enough for a claim.

Larissa Dziubenko just finished volunteering on the case throughout her second year of law school. She said the work is incredibly tedious at first because students must learn the vernacular of acronyms nurses and doctors use to describe the medication given to patients.

Over six months, Ms. Dziubenko analyzed a thousand pages of files relating to a boy who entered the institution around the age of 10 and was discharged in his 20s when Woodlands shut down.

“He was diagnosed with ‘mental retardation of unknown cause,’ ” Ms. Dziubenko said.

“It was quite a sad home story, with parents that just couldn’t handle it.”

She couldn’t find any pattern of abuse or neglect in the patient’s files, but he was injured a couple times after “maybe smashing a window in frustration,” she said. There also were questions about whether he received the appropriate dosages of medication. But in her final report, Ms. Dziubenko doubted he would qualify for compensation because “at the time there weren’t any hard-core standards for what you might give somebody in his situation.”

It may seem an impossible task for a small group of altruistic students, paralegals and lawyers to finish reviewing close to 500 more files before next September’s deadline, but Mr. Klein said his firm has added staff to the file and claimed “we will meet the deadline.”

“If I don’t, there isn’t anyone else who will.”

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