It was 1986, and eight-year-old Andy Bhatti was excited about joining Langley’s Big Brothers program.
Being raised by a single mom who struggled to feed and clothe three kids, having a Big Brother was going to fill the void left by an absent father.
“I did lots of wonderful things, like go skiing, canoeing, camping, fishing, learned how to play pool,” he said of times with Big Brothers. In 1989, at a Big Brothers Bowl-athon, he bowled on the same team as BC Lions’ Andre Francis (not Bhatti’s abuser).
There was an instant friendship.
“I invited him to my 10th birthday party and he really came. It was the first time in my childhood I was happy not having a father in my life, because I had a famous BC Lions football player at my house for my birthday,” Bhatti recalls fondly.
The defensive back invited Bhatti to watch the Super Bowl at his house. Francis was known for dedicating his time to countless charities. He even purchased a special section in the end zone for Langley’s Little Brothers to watch a game that year.
A picture of Bhatti and Francis bowling and having fun appeared in the Langley Times, accompanied by a column written about Francis’ charity work. In the photo, Bhatti is smiling from ear to ear.
But shortly after that picture was taken, Francis was traded and Big Brothers of Langley paired Bhatti with a new Big Brother — Joseph Douglas Baker. It would change his life completely — and not for the better.
“He was a real nice guy at first,” Bhatti said of Baker, who was in his 20s at the time.
“Once the sexual abuse started to happen, I started to feel dirty, ashamed, alone.”
Baker took Bhatti to Disneyland and on other trips, sexually abusing him over four years, from the ages of 10 to 14, when Bhatti ended it. By then, the damage was done.
Once the abuse started, Bhatti turned to drugs to escape the pain. He started acting out and getting into fights. He failed Grade 5. He ran away from home, lied, cheated, stole.
What’s worse about Bhatti’s story is that when he was about 14 years old his mom sent him to live in foster care. He ran away from those homes, too, so a judge ordered him to live with Baker.
“I felt I was sentenced to sexual abuse,” Bhatti said.
Eventually he ran away from Baker’s home and was sent back to jail.
“Jail seemed safe and better, plus they even had drugs there, too,” wrote Bhatti.
By age 16, Bhatti was a full-blown heroin addict and had spent as much time inside a jail cell as out. In his own words, he had become “a monster.”
He carried on a life of crime and addiction until he was 27 years old when the police came knocking on his door — not to arrest him but to ask him if he, too, had been abused by Baker.
“I knew then I had to speak up because Baker had abused other boys after me,” he said. It was the first time he had told anyone about the abuse.
In 2008, Joseph Douglas Baker pleaded guilty to nine counts of sexually assaulting and inviting sexual touching involving three children under the age of 14. The other two victims were six and 10 and lived in Vernon, where Baker lived at the time of the charges laid against him.
He was sentenced to three years in jail. He has served his sentence and is now out.
“He wanted to live back in Langley,” Bhatti said. “I told the courts ‘no way.’”
“I wonder what I could have become if I had never met him,” said Bhatti, who decided to make his story public to spread awareness about male sexual abuse — “a huge problem in B.C. that nobody is talking about,” he stresses.
To that end, Bhatti has began a campaign to bring awareness and funding to the B.C. Society for Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse.
He has organized the Pastimes Sports and Games Men of Hope charity poker challenge on April 6 at the Aldergrove Legion.
Already, several big names from NHL alumni will be playing, including Hockey Hall of Fame goalie Johnny Bower, John Craighead and others. Its sponsors include BC Lions, Vancouver Whitecaps and more. Celebrity guests include actor Nathaniel Arcand of Heartland, who is expected to sing at the event.
Bhatti isn’t stopping there. He is planning to cycle from Vernon, where the two other boys were abused by Baker, to Vancouver in July. He’s hoping to raise additional funds for the society.
“Unfortunately a significant portion of our clients have not been able to maintain gainful employment due to the psychological and emotional burdens resulting from the trauma of their abuse and cannot cover the cost of their treatment,” writes society founder Don Wright.
“It is agency policy to not refuse service to any male survivor who reaches out to us in good faith. As a consequence, BCSMSSA is often in a precarious financial position.”
Bhatti credits their support and the group therapy sessions he attends weekly for his success in being clean, healthy and healing for more than six years.
“To put it bluntly, if you don’t have support, you are screwed. You need someone to believe in you.
“Once I could finally accept that it wasn’t my fault this happened, then I could start to heal.”
When Bhatti sought help at 27, he couldn’t find it locally. He said he Googled for information and only came up with the society in Ontario.
“I actually flew to Ontario to get help.” That’s where he met Lee Ferrill, who he credits for being his support, even in the middle of the night. Ferrill, founder of Men of Hope, is co-organizing the poker tournament.
Survivors are in need of major counseling, which is costly and often not covered.
He says if he would have got help at 14, instead of 27, he would have turned out a “totally different person.”
But he admits, he was so out of control from beating himself up and blaming himself, that he likely wouldn’t have accepted help when he was a teen.
“I became real anti-social when I was 12 and wanted to just be alone and get high and block life,” he said.
“My brain didn’t stop. I always kept thinking of the abuse and how I was scared to go back to Baker’s house, but I was also too scared to tell anybody.”
Bhatti is glad that Toronto Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey has told his story of sexual abuse, along with several other high-profile athletes.
“It’s still so hard for men to talk about abuse but the more we all talk about it, the more we accept there is a real problem out there,” he said.
If Bhatti can help one kid get help, then all the fundraising and awareness he is doing is worth it, he said.
One in five men are sexually abused as a child, which is a shocking number and might be even one in four given so many men never talk about it, said Bhatti.
“We throw billions of dollars towards fighting cancer which has similar statistics. I’m not saying it’s not a worthy cause but for all the victims of sexual abuse, there is no funding,” he said. “Someone said to me that if I want to see change, I have to be that change. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
If you would like to sponsor, donate or take part in the poker tournament call co-organizer of the Men of of Hope and founder Lee Ferrill at 778-893-HOPE or call Bhatti at 604-309-1573. Tickets are also available at Pastime Sports and Games in Langley City. You can also email email@example.com.
Tighter screening rules in place at Big Brothers Big Sisters
In the past 10 years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada has put into place high levels of screening, as well as restrictions and constant match monitoring, said Langley BBBS’ executive director Mary Reeves.
“Our standards have been raised significantly in the past 10 years and even more so in the past five,” said Reeves.
Each year, the agency turns away potential Big Brothers who don’t make it through the restrictive screening process.
“We are very aware and trained to know of certain characteristics and we do refuse applicants if we have even the slightest concern,” she said. Criminal record checks are required.
“Once a match is made there is a significant amount of monitoring. We talk weekly. Overnight visits are prohibited in the first year.”
Reeves said research shows that grooming of a victim takes place quickly and can even happen within the first three weeks.
Big Brothers of Canada has the lowest ratios of cases among agencies that deal with children, but she stresses “any one child abused is too many.”
“Our number one priority is child safety and risk management. It has become very labour intensive with the amount of child safety training involved, but it’s worth it.”
The Langley BBBS served 200 children in 2012. That doesn’t necessarily mean matches but children who can attend events including sports and craft nights, bowl-athons and more.