Vernon News

North Okanagan youth worker was 'grooming' 15-year-old boy in her care: Crown

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VERNON - A former youth worker accused of having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy she supervised at a residential facility was 'grooming' him for a sexual relationship, a Crown prosecutor said yesterday.

Crown lawyer Juan O'Quinn told the court in his opening statement on the first day of her trial that Tamara Marie Nicholls had already begun that relationship although there are no allegations of sexual intercourse. Nicholls, born in 1991, pled not guilty to charges of sexual assault, sexual interference of a person under 16 and invitation to sexual touching a person under 16 from May 2017.

The relationship was discovered and disrupted by other youth workers, court heard.

O'Quinn said the complainant, who cannot be identified by court order, entered into a relationship which involved sexual activity, while he was living in a North Okanagan care home and Nicholls was his care provider. O'Quinn said the complainant had "boundary issues" and "learning difficulties" and had gone to live in the home because of his these challenges.

O'Quinn said there was kissing, fondling and sexual conversations between them. In one incident, O'Quinn told the court, Nicholls touched his penis when he was in bed; in another incident, the two were on the couch together when another person was present in the room. The Crown lawyer told the court the allegations were "problematic" because of Nicholls position of authority.

O'Quinn presented several books of printed Facebook messages between the two which he said was the extent of their relationship.

Throughout the trial, Nicholls sat with her defence lawyer taking notes.

The complainant, now 17, told the court he was aware what they were doing was illegal. O'Quinn produced reproductions of Facebook messages they exchanged. Through them, the court heard Nicholls was trying to have a baby with her husband and they contemplated her leaving when she got pregnant.

"I'll do my best to see you if you move out," said another message.

O'Quinn asked the complainant to go into detail about what he and Nicholls had done.

"I made out with her, rubbed over her clothing," he said. 

O'Quinn asked for more details. "On her butt...vagina, tits, all over her body," the complainant said.

O'Quinn told the court one message said, "Don't forget to bring more panties this time baby," and asked the complainant what this meant?

"I made her change her panties a couple of times because she got wet in them," the complainant said.

"Are you 100 per cent sure these conversations are between you and Ms. Nicholls," asked the lawyer. "Yes," the complainant replied.

While evidence was presented, the court was also concerned with the admissibility of some of the Facebook messages. Some of them were screen shots, others photographs of a computer screen. Justice Joel Groves ruled this morning, March 7, that half of them were inadmissible. It's not clear how the ruling will affect the remainder of the trial, scheduled to wrap up Friday.

Many were so blurry, the complainant couldn't read them, a situation made worse by his overall condition. 

At one point yesterday he told the court he was having an acid flashback.

Groves heard the complainant had been using drugs since he was 13 years old, although he had entered treatment last December and had been clean for almost three months.

Prior to the complainant taking the stand, the court heard from the first witness, a 17-year-old former school friend of the complainant. She said the complainant told her about the relationship and she knew Nicholls was his care worker and thought the relationship was under "weird circumstances". She said she saw the complainant receive Facebook messages from Nicholls regarding "sexual acts."

The complainant told the witness he was seeing Nicholls and they would "hang out together" and "be in bed." The witness told the court the complainant would send Facebook messages to Nicholls and then delete them. The Crown asked if the witness had seen this happen. "Yes," she replied.

The witness said later that day she informed a teacher about the relationship. The teacher was called as the next witness.

She said upon receipt of the information, she alerted the ministry and the complainant's social worker. The teacher testified she was very concerned about him after the revelation.

Next day, the teacher and a colleague took screenshots of the complainant messaging Nicholls over Facebook, by using a program that monitored what students were looking at when using the school's computers.

"[There were] more private messages of a very intimate nature," she told the court. The teacher said she and her colleague watched the complainant and Nicholls exchange messages and then delete them. During this time they took screenshots of their conversation, and when their computer occasionally froze, the witnesses colleague would take photos of the screen with her smartphone.

Later that day, RCMP Const. Dan Cocks, the complainant's social worker and ministry officials met with the complainant and it initially didn't go well. The teacher said following the meeting she "heard screaming and banging" and the complainant left the building, although did return later.

"He's a very vulnerable young man, very low functioning," she said. "He was smashing his head against the wall... I was worried about self-harm."

The teacher said he "operated at a very low level" and although was 15 years old, his academic level was that of a Grade 4 or 5 student.

The teacher said she printed the screenshots of the Facebook messages and photos taken on her colleague's smartphone and gave them to the RCMP.

The trial continues today, March 7.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Some information in this story, including witness identities and locations, was removed or left intentionally vague to avoid identification of the complainant.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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