Surviving and thriving after the horrors of institutionalization ~ Joe Clayton

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“I stood up on the back of the seat of the car, watching out the back window as my mom got smaller and smaller. And then she was gone in my life.” That’s how Joe Clayton recounts the beginning of his institutionalization at the Rideau Residence Centre. He was 12 years old. Over the following six years, he would experience profound trauma and abuse before being released into a society where he felt he did not belong.

Hear how Joe found a community, developed his artistic talents, and grew into a secure sense of who he is and where he belongs. Joe’s story weaves around the central truth that everyone deserves, and needs, to be part of a community and to be loved, and bears witness to the people who suffered alongside him without having had that chance.

On this episode of  the podcast, Joe courageously and generously shares his story with me: a story that begins with displacement, trauma, and isolation, but today is a testament to strength, healing, and a sense of belonging.

#Triggeralert: this episode contains discussions of abuse, including sexual abuse.

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Special thanks to Joe Clayton for joining me this week. Until next time!

Genia Stephen (00:01):
Welcome to the good things in life podcast. I’m Genia Stephen. Today, I have a very special guest. Joe Clayton. Joe is the owner of the Nature Natives Art Gallery. He is an artist and a photographer, and he and his wife, Christina live in Ompah, which is in Northern Ontario, Canada. This episode is probably going to be triggering for lots of people. We’re going to be talking about those experiences in Rideau Regional Centre, which is a large institution that has been now closed in Ontario, Canada. So listen to this when you have time for feelings. Joe, thank you very, very much for joining me today. I’m very grateful that you’re willing to come on the podcast and speak with me and share your story with the audience.

Joe Clayton (00:55):
Thank you. Thank you very much for inviting me.

Genia Stephen (00:58):
So, Joe, I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about your life now?

Joe Clayton (01:06):
Uh, yes. Um, I’m very happy today to be successful in my new life, running a art gallery and enjoying the things around me, going camping, fishing, bicycling and photograph wildlife. I even enjoy the winter time in the Northern Ontario. I love to go snowshoeing and skiing, learning how to do art on the computer with my photos is something I never did before, because I did not feel worthy about myself. When I started to believe in myself all the worthless was gone and a new creation door opened for me. When I go home after telling my story, I would relive it and I would become very grumpy inside, but, but I now found a way to handle these feelings, taking photos, photos, recreating art, and finding other ways to solve the faults have brought me to a healing process, which also heals humanity.

Genia Stephen (02:36):
Thank you, Joe. So tell me, tell me a little bit, well, as much as you’re telling me, tell me your story. How did you end up at Rideau Regional?

Joe Clayton (02:49):
Um, How do I end up at Rideau Regional? Okay. I was, I’ll just tell you the way I do it. I was born in Pembroke, Ontario on February the 9th, 1953. I weighed eight pounds. I was with my mom for five years. My mom was sick and she could not care for me. So my mom’s friend looked after me until she died on August 18, 1958, age 58. At the age of five, I was made a ward of the Renfrew Children’s Aid Society. I remember that day as it were yesterday. My mom said goodbye to me and got into the car. I stood up on the back of the seat of the car, watching out the back window. As my mom got smaller and smaller. And then she was gone in my life. My life was like a game I, I was up, I was always made to move from one place to another, someone from the Children’s Aid Society. would throw my clothes into the trunk of the car and they would take me to a new place. Upon arrival at the new place. I was told, “You have to stay here”. I had, I had no say in the matter. I felt like people, I felt like people, I felt like people didn’t really care.

Joe Clayton (04:40):
And I felt people rejected me all the time and that nobody really, um, like I said, cared for me, nobody seemed to understand my needs or my problems. And they never asked me to talk about them. My foster mother decided it would be better if I was institutionalized before I could become too close to or too dependent on my foster family. On May the 16, 1966, at the age of 12, the Children’s Aid Society put me in the Rideau Residence Centre in Smiths Falls, Ontario. Let me tell you being an institution was life living in hell. First of all, I was put into the mission board where we, where we were made, where we were made to take our clothes off. And then to stand before them naked, then the staff measure us to see what size of clothes we needed until our clothes arrived.

Joe Clayton (05:54):
But a week later we had nothing else to wear except a nightgown. Once our clothes arrived, we had to put our name tag on every items to make sure no one stole them from us. During my stay in the mission ward, the staff would take us for walks and we were made to hold hands so that nobody would run away. This made me feel like a dog. The staff also being L I N E D us up like herd of sheep. After two weeks in the mission ward, I was transferred to 3-D ward residence with 25 male patients between the age of 18 to 30 years old. Remember that I was only 12 years old at that time. I, I can’t tell you how afraid I was looking up at these older man who looked like giants to me. We had to stand in line for our meals and for our pills – our pills were called candy.

Joe Clayton (07:17):
If I move an inch while in this line, one of the patients would attack me, needless to say, I only moved once in the lineup – never again. We also have to walk down the hallway and then in a line to get to showers with our towels wrapped around our waist holding our soap. So we all have to shower in the same place, no privacy, which made me feel like I was in prison. I was terrified and scared of seeing all these naked men around me. They hit me with wet rolling towels and end up with cuts on my body. I was gang raped for the shower and I passed out from that attack. There was lots of fighting and stealing in 3-D. I fear for my life and my belongings. A older man attacked me with scissors and I was cut.

Joe Clayton (08:32):
It was only a scratch cut, but still, but nobody care how I was treated. I was made – I was made to feel ashamed, very lonely and afraid for my life. The doors to 3-D were always locked. The only time I was allowed out with staff members to go for walks, washroom showers, meals for school. Once when I did not follow the rules, I was put in a dark room. They called this the side room, where the door was locked. I was made to sit naked on the cold floor and a man would look in the window and laugh at me. When I was in the side room, sitting on the floor, we had no toilets, no bathrooms. We had to pee on the floor. And then when we were, and then when it was all done, when staff took me out, I had to go back and clean the mess.

Joe Clayton (09:44):
Another time when I did not follow the rules, they put me, my head, in a toilet bowl and made me kneel in a corner for two, three hours. Once when I, I, once I, once I swear, they made me eat a bar of soap and I was sick to my stomach. There was never privacy at Rideau Regional. I did not understand why I was being treated so badly. And I sat in the corner crying in fear and sadness. Not all the staff are bad people. We had some good staff as well. Every night I was attacked and raped by some of the patients who’d said that if I told the staff they would kill me. They tried to once with a pillow, but I fought back. This went on for six years. Every night as a boy, you usually think you have a good sleep. Get a bedtime story. Someone tells you a nice story, but for my life I did not get that. What I got was being treated by patients by attacking me and raping me.

Joe Clayton (10:51):
I never got up and had dreams, good dreams. This went on for six years. The word was passed around. I was labeled spongy. At night, sometimes the staff would pull the sheets off of me when I was asleep and then proceed to check out my testicles with a flashlight and stick. They would sprinkle powder on me, which made me feel very uncomfortable. I didn’t even, I, even though I realized just how they treated us for bedbugs, but I never understood why did they did this in the middle of the night? I worked in laundry room and I had to clean poop, that’s human poop, out of the dirty linens. I was told I was being taken for a brain test where they hook wires up to my head and put a piece of wood under my tongue. I, I was then shocked and my entire jaw shook.

Joe Clayton (12:00):
No nobody ever explained to me, why did this, why they did this after running away from Rideau Regional several times I begin – I been found and returned. I met a nice man at Rideau Regional inform me that if I did not run away for a solid year, they would let me out. On May the 16th, ’71, at age 18, a children’s worker from Renfrew came and picked me up. And I was happy, finally, to be able to leave at Rideau Regional Centre living there was like hell I said before. And it is great to talk about my story, but moving ahead in the future was difficult because of the institution was blocking me. Many people offered to support me, but they could not get through me. The institution was holding me back until I met Christina in 2014. And she helped me to see the way.

Joe Clayton (13:05):
The day I met Christina, I decided to not let the past take me down, to live and be free from the past. First I learned to love myself and to forgive my, forgive everyone who hurt me and then I learned to move on and balance my life. After that, I decided to share my story, at conference and meetings, being able to share my story and experiences with others and has given me the knowledge to never ever let this happen to anyone again. I believe that sharing such hardship in life a big part of my healing process. I hope sharing my story would change the way people see others with disability and encourage those who have been abused to speak up and to start this amazing healing process. My goal is to educate people about what happened in the institution and to do my best to ensure That this type of punishment and abuse doesn’t happen again to any human beings. Sexual abuse is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Of the many others who were abused in Rideau Residence Centre, some are dead, and their secrets lie with them. I’m still alive, and I’m proud to be speaking for them. You just can’t, you can’t just take a shower and wash away all the horrible memories. I’m just glad I did something. I am glad I did not decide to end my life. Then I would just be another victim of abuse in the institution. We take the story to the grave. I am a survivor. I know that someday I will die, but I will rest well, because I actually did something to help our community and the world by speaking up for what I believe. Thank you.

Genia Stephen (15:18):
Hey there, at the end of this interview, I talk about what’s going on in my life right now. And I talk about a resource that I have around safeguarding vulnerable people when they are in the hospital. And I’m popping in here in case you don’t have time to listen, or if this is just too triggering and too upsetting to listen to the entire interview, you know, even if our kids are not institutionalized, like Joe was, there are still incredibly vulnerable places in our community that our kids, our loved ones may have to go to like a hospital, but they still need to be safeguarded. Even in those places, I have a resource around medical safeguarding that might be of interest to you. You can learn more about it by going to And now we will get back to Joe’s story. Thanks.

Genia Stephen (16:26):
Thank you so much, Joe. I wish I could give you a really big hug right now. It takes an incredible amount of strength to survive such horrific conditions, and it takes an incredible amount of strength to talk about it, um, and to, to share with others what happened to you and happened to so many other people who were institutionalized? So, Joe, what was your life like between when you were 18 in 1971, um, and when you met your wife in 2014, what was, what was life like in between, like in the aftermath of the institution before you found a way to heal?

Joe Clayton (17:23):
Actually, when I left, um, Rideau Regional, it was scary for me because I was locked up for six years and getting, going out into the world to see the world the way it is, it was kind of different for me. It was, uh, uh, where am I, you know, but then, um, I went, they brought me, uh, to the, uh, foster home, Mr. Clue’s.

Joe Clayton (17:51):
And, and when I stayed there, I stayed there for two years. They were very nice, uh, foster parents. Uh, I was amazed. I just got out of an institution and here they took me in and open arms and just love me uncondition and underst- but no one talked about, I did not talk about where I about my, um, experience and my journey, uh, what I went through. Um, actually I never talked about it. Um, I just, you know, it was all locked up, like, uh, like a door. So it just, it continued to be locked for, you know, I would just locked it. And then I went to Silver Spring Farm in two years. Silver Spring Farm helps people to go out in the community and get jobs and things like that. And I was there for, um, um, I think I was there for two years too, uh, but the neatest thing is that I started, um, they started open, um, my challenge, they found out I could draw and things like that.

Joe Clayton (19:02):
So they had a little studio for me upstairs, um, my own studio and I was the only, I think it was now, I was about 20 cause this is going back one, two years now, too. So about 20. And when I was at Silver Spring Farm and I stayed there and not, I stayed at, I was in Ottawa, Ontario. And, um, it really, uh, I looked after horses. Um, there was horses there and I was, I, you know, doing a lot of things that I started, like, like doing. And I, then I, when I left there, I just, uh, the, um, let me go to a place apartment on my own and brought someone in to help me and to show me, um, you know, like how to, how to survive and how to cook food and how to do things and never get out. And, um, so I went from there and then, uh, I just continue to, um, you know, uh, go different places, um, going through some storms, things like that.

Joe Clayton (20:10):
Um, I remember, one time I met somebody from the institution and, um, uh, I had my money or whatever. And, uh, they asked me to go down to a place and I went down to a place and, uh, they took my rent money. They robbed me and he, well, he set it up and I’m, and all those scared little things I went through, um, I was starting to have a lot of, uh, triggers or whatever, but I had to sleep on a bench because I had no rent money. But later on down the road, I start growing up a bit and start learning how to, um, learning things from people, learn how to be in the community because in a community, I have a lot of the things that I went through in my life. I’d rather, sometimes I say maybe it was better in the institution because in the world part, it was kind of rough because people would think you’re a monster, people would think you’re a pervert because what you went through. So it was very, um, uh, you know, I had people who, uh, call me names like that. Uh, it was hard, but I knew who I was. And I had to keep that in my mind. I knew who I was, I was William Joseph Clayton, and I w- you know what I mean?

Joe Clayton (21:35):
So I had to keep that, um, straight for myself to keep my head up and say, no, I won’t allow that, I won’t allow that because I know who I am. And just because we went there doesn’t mean I’m, I’m, I’m a monster or whatever. It’s just because people just don’t understand. They don’t have the knowledge to understand. And, and so it was just kind of life that I was going, um, going through. And, uh, I think that was the hardest, the hardest thing, um, uh, in my life. And I think the hardest thing in my life was when my son, um, was sexually assaulted by one of my best friends that I knew very well. And when all that happened it’s like, my whole world went upside down. Cause this is my baby boy. And I was going through, um, that really hard time.

Joe Clayton (22:40):
Um, I remember that day very clearly because I remember I was so upset and so angry. I went to a store, I think it was, a store or something. So anyways, I went to the store after my son was abused by my best friend. I was so upset. I was lost. I was in dark. But, uh, instead of going after the person, I decided to go to the store and maybe, uh, just to read a book or something, you know, a comic book, I walked in and I was reading comic books, but these people were talking about somebody who was out there abusing people and they, they — I didn’t say anything. So they, and I was quiet. So they start having a kangaroo court and start judging me and start tearing me down. And me, that I was one of the monsters now, because I didn’t stand out, but they did not know what I was going through.

Joe Clayton (23:38):
They didn’t understand what I was going through. And I was so hurt and I was so angry because here’s me trying to get a healing, just to go and calm down a bit, grieve a bit. Anyways, the story was, I left, very upset and I, I said to myself, why does this happen to people, you know, when they go through this? Um, my whole world was upside down, but my son was very proud of me because I, I did stand up for him and, and been there for him and to help him through this awful time. And, um, I was guilty. I felt really bad because my ex-wife and I decided that day to go out for a break. And we were looking for a babysitter and this person, my friend decided to babysit, but we did not know that he was that kind of person.

Joe Clayton (24:37):
And when I found out, when that happened, when I got home, the police was there, and the Children’s Aid Society. My whole life went upside down and I, I did pray and I did ask God to help our family and myself, but it was very hard. My, my flesh was there. And, but I, like I said, I went to the store and that’s, you know, that’s this place, and this is where it all started. But when my life, I just kept believing myself, my son’s going to be fine. Uh, I’m going to be fine. We’re gonna, we’re gonna, we’re gonna, we’re gonna, you know, because what happens, it triggers from the past that triggers from the, um, to the institution, it goes back, you know, and it makes you feel like you failed because you didn’t save him. Cause I wasn’t there. And I said, parents, it’s very hard when you see your baby boy or, or any of your child go through that. But I, I’m so glad that I was there to, um, talk with him and comfort him through this. Um, the day when I phoned him and asked him if I could put it in my story, he said, yes, because it was a day too, for people to, um, just to know what a parent goes through, you know? And, um, yeah, I don’t know if that made sense, but —

Genia Stephen (26:06):
No, it does make, it does make sense, Joe and I, I imagine, you know, you’ve got these two experiences or realities, you know, on the one hand, um, you’ve got the, the experience that any parent would have when they find out that their child has been assaulted. And then on the other hand, you also have the incredibly, um, traumatic experiences yourself, which, you know, as you said, get triggered in that kind of, uh, you know, when, when something like that happens, um, which would so complicate navigating through that time with your son and it just must’ve been incredibly painful on, so, so many levels, so many levels.

Joe Clayton (26:59):
Yeah. And like I said, um, I know, um, you know, I’m not a monster or anyone else, because it’s, even when people are in each institution before it got out, they had to get up a very severe check by the police by, you know, just get a check. And I remember reading one of my records. It says, um, you know, I had, uh, the police had checked my records and, uh, I didn’t have, I didn’t have any sexual behaviours or anything like that. I would, you know, I’m, I’m not, I wouldn’t say I was perfect. Please check your records. It was more, it was more, the, the hospital would check the hospital would make sure and they would help you. Um, they would, um, give you chances, things like that before you left. Um, when I left, um, I guess they must have had a police record or something. So, you know, I was okay. Um, I guess, I guess that’s from Rideau Regional, I wasn’t sure, but the main thing is, that’s what they would do. If the person was very, um, uh, you know, on behaviour, whatever they would get, they would, it would put them in a place where they can get help or whatever, you know, so, yeah,

Genia Stephen (28:10):
Yeah, yeah. And so Joe, the — just looping, looping back to your story and why you tell your story now, is there a sort of a, a parting message, uh, you know, that, that, that you want to share with people?

Joe Clayton (28:37):
Yeah. I would like to share it to the people in the government and to all the politicians. I would like them to hear our stories because I think it’s very important for them to learn. Never again, we — like I said, never gonna want this kind of abuse happen to anyone, uh, any institution or anywhere. Uh, it doesn’t matter, you know, um, we’re, we’re in a society too, and we don’t want that kind of stuff to happen. And we would like people to learn from me and from others to tell our stories, to learn and have a better education to understand that, you know, um, this, this was wrong and we don’t want to go backwards. We want to go forward. We want to go to, we want people to have the free choice to, to be out in the community, free choice to, to do things that they want to do. If they need support, they get support, but they, they need to, you know, to be out there and, and, and feel like they’re human beings, we need to feel like we’re loved, you know? And I think that’s very important, to feel loved, and to feel happy, and, you know.

Genia Stephen (29:42):
Yes. Thank you for that, Joe. And thank you so, so much for your courage in sharing your story, uh, your courage in, uh, you know, just trying to make sure that your experience helps to prevent other people from going through what you went through. I’m, I’m deeply, deeply grateful to you. Thank you so much.

Joe Clayton (30:10):
You’re welcome.

Genia Stephen (30:15):
Thank you so much for listening to this whole episode. This interview with Joe, it’s obviously really profound, it’s thought provoking. It’s devastating to think about what he’s experienced. Right after I recorded this interview with Joe, my sister, who is a few years younger than I am, and who has disabilities got really sick and she’s been hospitalized for, um, little over a week now. And, um, it’s made me really, really think about the fact that even when we focus on ensuring that our loved ones with disabilities live at the heart of community, that they are, you know, we never allow what happened to Joe and so many others to happen again, that we’re still at risk of finding ourselves in a situation where our loved ones are in an institution. And, um, that’s a hospital. You know, hospitals are major systems and major institutions and during COVID, we’re facing particular threats around our loved ones being, um, left alone and isolated.

Genia Stephen (31:39):
And without our support, you know, through my sister’s hospitalization, we’ve managed to advocate and, um, stay with her. And, uh, we can only have one person throughout her hospitalizations. It was pretty intense. I’m that person right now. And through our, her hospitalization, I’ve caught probably close to a dozen serious medication errors. I’ve advocated to make sure that she gets the care that she needs. I’ve interpreted her communication, um, countless times to people and been a voice for her when she’s been unable to speak for herself. And I’ve got this resource that I haven’t really been putting out there all that much. And I’ve just been so incredibly grateful for the training and the skill set that I have around medical advocacy and safeguarding. And I just realized that some of you may also be in need of a skill set that will allow you to protect your loved one in the hospital if that comes to pass. So if you’re interested in a less than two-hour short course on medical safeguarding and a workbook that will help you to put together a medical safeguarding plan for your loved one with a disability during COVID, or outside of COVID, because safeguarding people who have disabilities and are vulnerable when they’re in the hospital is relevant at any time, you can find access to that course, you can enroll, for $37 Canadian at the time of this publication, by going to

Genia Stephen (33:42):
Joe’s interview is probably one of the most vulnerable, profound and courageous interviews that I’ve ever had on this podcast. And I just want to take a moment to express my deep appreciation, respect, and gratitude to Joe for sharing his story. I hope to see you same time, same place next week. And I hope that you are all safe and well.

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Genia Stephen
Genia Stephen

Sister, mother, midwife, writer, speaker and perpetually curious. Dedicated to bringing you the voices, ideas and conversations of world class mentors and thought leaders in the field of disability.