IWK Health Centre evasive on what services exist for Nova Scotia kids with autism

IWK responds to criticism over lack of autism assistance
Thurs., Jan. 11: The IWK Health Centre spoke out on Thursday after three different Nova Scotia families came forward with their experiences with autism and what they say is a lack of help. But as Marieke Walsh reports, the IWK offered no real answers.

Atlantic Canada’s biggest children’s hospital was evasive, and unable to answer many questions in an interview pitched by the hospital to bring “clarity” on concerns raised by several families.

In the last month and a half, three separate families have come forward to Global News to detail their heartbreaking experiences with autism. All of them say their sons were ill-served by the IWK Health Centre.

READ MORE: ‘What is their plan?’: N.S. family struggles to cope as PM, premier dodge questions on autism

All were admitted to the IWK’s Garron Centre when their families could no longer cope with their violent behavior at home.

In each case, the families say their children weren’t given the treatment they needed and that due consideration to the safety of everyone involved wasn’t given around admission and discharge decisions.

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Most recently, the parents of Dakota Wyre, 15, say the IWK discharged their son against their wishes and without giving time to put safety measures in place at home. They say they were told the Garron Centre wasn’t the “place” for Dakota.

Carly Sutherland said her family had to fight the hospital to delay their nine-year-old son Callum’s discharge until the family installed new safety measures, such as a plexiglass window.

With each story, Global News asked the IWK for an interview. On Thursday, one was unexpectedly offered with the hospital’s chief of psychiatry Dr. Alexa Bagnell and Maureen Brennan, the director of mental health and addictions at the IWK.

WATCH: IWK evasive on questions regarding autism services

IWK evasive on questions regarding autism services
IWK evasive on questions regarding autism services

However, the two were unable to say whether there is a place for a child with autism who is in crisis at the IWK.

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Global News asked: “If the family and the child feel that the only option is to be in hospital, is there an appropriate environment in the IWK for that?”

Brennan answered: “Every case is different, and it’s based on the assessment, but if you’re talking about gaps nationally across our country, yeah.”

Global News interjected: “I’m talking about here.”

Brennan answered: “Yes. Well, what I would say is that with families that are coming in crisis, depending on what those identified needs are, there’s going to be a plan put in place that reflects that in collaboration with the family. And some of those needs are within the IWK and some of those needs are outside the IWK.”

READ MORE: N.S. family ‘scared’ as boy with severe autism faces release without home supports

‘Where do families go?’

Global News asked 15 different times whether there is an appropriate place for children with autism who are in a crisis at the IWK — the question was never answered.

After watching a segment of the interview, Autism Nova Scotia executive director Cynthia Carroll said the comments suggest “there’s no support” for families.

“When you see that interview and you’re struggling at home, and you’re being hit and you’re being scratched, and you’re looking for hope. When you see an interview that is very circular like that, you’re thinking, ‘There’s no hope for my family.'”

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“That’s devastating for families really in many ways,” she said. “Where do families go — that’s our question to government.”

READ MORE: ‘We need help’: N.S. family fears for safety as they care for son with autism

If the child with autism has a co-occurring psychiatric condition, then Brennan and Bagnell said the Garron Centre would be an appropriate place for the child. But what happens if there’s no co-occurring illness? They couldn’t say.

“It can look very different,” Brennan said. “We recognize the tremendous strain and stress that this situation causes on families. So what happens is that based on the assessment and the conversations with the family, decisions get made to minimize any risk, decisions get made that represent a plan that we feel that is going to respond to the need at the time.”

‘We need to have those honest conversations’

Carroll said at the IWK and across Nova Scotia, there is no place for people with autism who are in crisis.

“There needs to be a place of safety that is not just about a locked door,” Carroll said. She said a place for people in crisis should include “effective assessment, support, intervention and treatment.”

“It’s OK to say we have a gap in the system — it’s OK to acknowledge that there’s work to do,” she said. “We need to have those honest conversations, this is an issue in Nova Scotia, and it may be an issue in other places of the country, but we live in Nova Scotia.”

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After a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Premier Stephen McNeil said he had no timeline for when services or supports would improve. He said the government will “continue to make investments.”