Mother of teenager who died in MCFD’s care in August speaks out
Today the friends and family of Alex Gervais’ lay his body to rest, two weeks after the 18-year-old died while under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development at the time.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, is investigating the case. She says she was misled into believing that none of the young people moved out of the group home Gervais before it was shut down would go to a hotel.
But Turpel-Lafond is also considering investigating the case of another B.C. teenager named Alex who died in the Ministry’s care this summer.
Alex Malamalatabua had struggled with mental illness for years, and was found dead outside BC Children’s Hospital on August 4. The 17-year-old had spent the last five months in the hospital, with ministry staff unable to find a more suitable home for him, despite his improving condition.
“He was in a bit of a holding pattern, where there was nowhere for him to go,” said Turpel-Lafond.
“That relationship, between his situation of being in the hospital, basically living and being raised in the hospital, and whether that contributed to what happened to him, is something my office is paying very careful attention to.”
Jacqueline Malamalatabua says the situation is especially tragic because of the trust she put in the government. Alex was placed in the hospital in March after he was found in a North Shore forest, three days after running away from home.
It was then that Jacqueline, a single mother, signed over care to the ministry.
“His needs were beyond what I was able to provide for him on my own,” the single mother says.
“On a day to day basis, I don’t have extended family, I don’t have additional supports…That’s what they’re supposed to be there for. It’s not that I wanted to do that.”
But while the average stay in the adolescent psychiatric unit is one month, Gervais was there for 19 weeks.
“You’d be locked up in a place for five months, it’s going to be detrimental to anybody. There’s a point where you need to move forward,” says Jacqueline.
Turpel-Lafond says the situation Alex was in – likely needing to transition out of acute care, but not well enough to be fully in the community – is one many teenagers in ministry care face.
“We are still dealing with young people who are in hotels, inappropriate group home settings, and young people like Alex it would appear finding anywhere that’s an appropriate match for their needs,” she says.
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She’s called upon the province to build a therapeutic foster care system, especially for teenagers, to address the problem.
“Stop using shelters and hotels, and stop using group homes where there’s often low wage staff with no training, and develop a more skilled staffed set of resources throughout of province…so they step down from an acute care setting like the children’s hospital, into a semi-secure but supported resource, where they spend a period of time, generally up to three months, and then back into the community,” she says.
“It’s that very important step between acute hospitalization and community. If you send people back into the community they tend to fall apart quite quickly, and they need that step down. That has been defunded in the past decade and needs to be re-established.”