The British Columbia government is promising an overhaul of the support children with complex needs receive after a devastating report by the province’s advocate for Children and Youth.
The report titled Alone and Afraid examines the life of “Charlie” who was removed from his mother’s care in 2016 after police found him alone, screaming, severely underweight and in a state of profound neglect.
The 12-year-old boy, who has autism and is non-verbal, endured years of malnutrition and neglect, inadequate services to address his special needs, and little education or socialization.
“Charlie and his family were extremely vulnerable in a number of ways, but the broader system of care never seemed to grasp just how vulnerable,” said Representative Jennifer Charlesworth. “Consequently, this family never received consistent supports needed to ensure Charlie’s safety, development, health and education, and he suffered ongoing trauma no child should endure.”
What stands out on the report is that Charlie, whose real name is not used to protect his identity, was the subject of eight separate child protection reports received by MCFD and the ministry consistently did not comply with standards and no MCFD social worker ever laid eyes on the boy as part of a child protection response.
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The Children’s Rep is not placing any blame on the individuals who dealt with Charlie’s case but are concerned that even when he was seen by those professionals, his needs were not fully recognized, nor were they able to adequately respond to his struggles because of workload and caseload pressures.
Charlie’s mother never accessed funding available to her son after his autism diagnosis but that fell through the cracks because the ministry did not have an alert mechanism in place to identify that. There was also a significant delay with diagnosing Charlie with autism spectrum disorder until after his sixth birthday.
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“Despite showing significant signs of developmental delay before the age of three, Charlie was not diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder until well after his sixth birthday,” Charlesworth said. “The consequence of that, that delayed assessment and diagnosis, resulted in his family losing eligibility for early years support.”
“If he had received the earlier supports, it may have very well changed his developmental trajectory.”
As part of the report, Charlesworth has put forward 11 recommendations.
Those recommendations include MCFD working with the Ministries of Health and Education to develop an integrated service delivery model that enables appropriate information-sharing between service providers.
The children’s advocate is also recommending Health and MCFD work collaboratively to develop a plan to ensure early identification, timely assessment and appropriate supports for children under six with signs of developmental delay and develop a protocol with the Ministry of Education to address chronic, unexplained school absences.
In Charlie’s case, he had two prolonged hospital stays and while he received support, his condition improved. But while he was back at home, he went largely unseen and there was little follow-up.
Charlie had some initial success at school but then his attendance fell off dramatically. He missed more than 100 days over two school years before his mother withdrew him in 2011.
“Charlie seemed to drop off the radar during this period when it should have been clear that he and his family still needed help,” Charlesworth said. “This led to the state of neglect in which he was found – a situation that was entirely preventable had the right supports been in place. We need to ensure that lessons are learned from his story and improvements are made because there remain many other families out there with complex needs that the system struggles to support.”
The provincial government is in the midst of developing a framework of services for children and youth with special needs. Children and Families Minister Katrine Conroy says the framework will address some of the key challenges outlined in this report.
“Like anyone who reads this report, I was horrified to learn of what he went through and the ways he was let down by a system meant to protect him,” Conroy said.
“This report also shows the importance of having an independent representative to examine and shed light on systemic issues. We accept the intent of each and every one of the representatives’ recommendations, and there’s much more work we will do to address the challenges they highlight.”
“One of the most disturbing parts of the report was the admission by social workers that they were unable to meet the most basic requirement of their job. Time after time, red flags were raised, the ministry was called, and still no one checked in on the child in question.
“After the final protection call was made, nearly two months went by before anyone from the ministry physically saw Charlie. During that time, he suffered unspeakably.”