Joe Clayton was 12 years old when he walked through the cavernous halls of Rideau Regional Centre for the first time.
Essentially ejected from the foster care system, rejected time and again by those who were meant to protect and nuture him, he quickly learned to fend for himself inside the institution's walls.
In this overcrowded and brutally depressing place, Joe spent his days trying to avoid the staff - and his nights unsucessfully warding off the abuse heaped upon him by
"I was always scared," he recalled, years later, finally free and speaking to my DSW class at Loyalist College. "I always felt ashamed, like no one cared because of how I was treated. I was always scared for my life."
Joe had many reasons to be afraid. During the day, staff and orderlies tortured their young and vulnerable charges, punishing them for the slightest infraction. Joe spent many long hours scrubbing the kilometres-long hallways with just a brush, or banished to a "Side Room" where he would huddle naked on the floor, weeping.
More than once, staff members grabbed the boy and shoved his head down the toilet, flushing even as he struggled to breathe. Or they'd wrestle him into a "monkey suit" (a straitjacket) and leave him trussed up for the day, just because.
The staff were our God, our mothers, our fathers.
Joe and the others were paid 25 cents an hour to pluck feces from the mountains of soiled linen used by the residents of Rideau Regional. It was dreaded, horrible task but one which Joe and the others were forced to repeat hour upon hour, day after day.
Even the nights offered little solace for Joe. As a resident on a giant ward, he had no privacy - beds lined every wall, spilling out into corridors and hallways. But his blankets offered little protection for the slight boy, for Joe was raped and sodomized almost nightly for 6 years.
In fact, years later, an examination revealed heavy scarring in his rectum - the result of repeated assaults. Beatings were regular and cruel and meted out by staff and residents alike. In the dorms, in the showers, inside the darkened doorways of the institution's long corridors, Joe knew mostly fear and pain.
Many times, Joe tried to escape, sometimes alone, sometimes with his friend, Freddy Sanderson. Joe says that the staff began to taunt him and Freddy, teasing them with thoughts of freedom:
"They played a game with us. They said, 'If you run away and don't get caught for three weeks, you'll be free.'"
Once, the pair almost made it to Montreal before they were caught and they spent several weeks in "Side Rooms" as punishment. After that, they were no longer permitted outside the Centre's locked doors. Besides, staff reasoned, where would he go?
Joe never received visitors at Rideau Regional. In fact, he was told that his family had all died. No one was coming to rescue him. He was alone, except for Freddy, his blood brother, his friend.
An terrible reality for a young boy who came of age inside a cage.
"There was nothing wrong with a lot of us when we went in," he says, his voice shaking only a little. "But we were all of us broken when we left."
Part III coming soon...