The heartbreaking image of a 15-year-old developmentally disabled girl sitting alone with the corpse of her mother for up to a week in their Chilliwack home is even more distressing when knowing how much the services and support system of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) failed her so completely considering mother and daughter were long known to them.
If not for concerned neighbours, the teenager too could have died. Where was the help they so desperately needed?
The story, which broke in the media last fall, horrified and outraged people. And it opened up a Pandora’s box of issues about the inadequacy of bureaucratic care when both a child with multiple health complications and a mother with her own medical needs slipped through the support cracks.
In her recent report, Isolated and Invisible; When Children with Special Needs are Seen but not Seen, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, Representative for Children and Youth, said that “This girl’s struggling and eventually desperately ill mother – and a wide variety of support providers – did not have enough focus on this girl.”
The teen had faced serious health issues all her life. Born with Down Syndrome, she required almost immediate surgery to correct congenital heart defects. She had a variety of surgeries and procedures including tubes in her ears and eye re-alignment and she was treated multiple times for infections. At age 13 her speaking and listening abilities were those of a three-year-old and she had significant behavioural problems that were controlled by strong psychoactive drugs. Meanwhile the mother struggled with poverty, health issues, personal problems, addictions and isolation that overshadowed the needs of her child. They were on a path to destruction.
The disturbing fact is that it wasn’t as though the MCFD didn’t know about their plight. The department received its first child protection report about mother and daughter in 2006 and received another four subsequent child protection reports, including two in the last four months of the mother’s life.
It was a travesty that the mother’s income assistance was cut off and the file closed. She had lost the use of her car which meant the devastating loss of her two jobs. Where was the follow up to ensure the family’s financial stability?
“Is this the only child in British Columbia we are letting down in this way?” asked Turpel-Lafond in her report. “Is this a unique circumstance, a cruel anomaly? Tragically, it is not. We know for example this child shared one of her support workers with almost 200 others. We know that in that worker’s office, there was great confusion about roles and responsibilities. And we are well aware of wait lists for therapy services and challenges in meeting the needs of children with special needs in our schools.”
It wasn’t just that the case workers failed. It was the system. Turpel-Lafond urged in her many recommendations that what is desperately needed is clarity not only about who does what but about programs that require child protection social workers, special needs workers, therapists, physicians and teachers to work together effectively with the child as the focus.
The report said there should have been much more regard for family members and outsiders who had tried to help the child. People with credible information need to be treated with respect, listened to and their input carefully weighed without prejudice.
One can only imagine the teen’s confusion and trauma trying to help her dead mother. When found, she was weak and dehydrated, unable to hear, and had developed stomach problems.
We have laws supporting the dignity of life. We have an affluent society, an abundance of knowledge, skilled professionals.
How did we fail?