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Former staff, residents call for removal of managers at Street Workers Advocacy Project

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WATCH: A group connected to a Regina safe housing program and the FSIN allege poor conditions contributed to the death of a former resident and are demanding changes – Mar 3, 2021

A group of 29 former staff members and residents of the Raising Hope program in Regina renewed calls for the removal of Street Workers Advocacy Project (SWAP) managers Wednesday.

The demand comes two months after the death of former program resident Marilyn Gordon. The advocates say Gordon was denied reentry to the program, which is operated by SWAP, after being unfairly evicted following an encounter with a program case worker.

“Our group contends that the negligence of Raising Hope management, and the problematic and egregious behaviour of this case worker, contributed to Marilyn’s demise and the breakdown of support provided to other residents,” said former staff member Cheryl Deschene during a press conference at the First Nations University of Canada.

As the first of four calls to action made Wednesday, Deschene called for the “immediate removal” of SWAP Executive Director Barb Lawrence, Human Resource Administrative Manager Barb Horvath and Program Manager Danica Escobar.

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The group of advocates allege that a summer 2020 management change led to a departure from the program’s original goals.

“The program shifted into an institutional, rules-based structure where shaming, judgement, intimidation, power and control became the new model,” she said.

Deschene explained the “six pillars” meant to guide the program are “trauma-informed practice, women-centred, relationship-based, cultural safety, holistic healing and harm reduction.”

“In the summer of 2020 four key leadership employees resigned from the program. SWAP Executive Director Barb Lawrence refocused the program on independence seemingly without any public consultation or approval from the (provincial government) funders,” she said.

“Many residents, including Marilyn, were distraught and sadly returned to self-destructive behaviours as a means of coping.”

Deschene said her group has identified “over 200 breaches” of SWAP’s policy and procedure manual.

A request for comment sent to Raising Hope’s Advisory Committee has not yet been returned.

“Why was Marilyn denied reentry? That’s our question,” Deschene said. “We are seeking the truth behind this catastrophic decision.”

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Gordon’s father Roland Desjarlais also spoke at the event.

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He detailed the events leading up to his daughter’s “preventable” fentanyl overdose death on January 3.

He said Gordon, who had a history with substance use disorder, joined the program in February 2020 “believing she would be in a safe and supportive living environment.”

“She saw hope in this particular shelter because it had all the promises of hope and sobriety for her and her children.”

He said she was evicted in September 2020.

He said the eviction followed an August event involving Gordon’s son.

“Marilyn’s six-month-old boy accidentally rolled off the bed. Evening shift employees called a day-shift case worker who was on call that evening,” Desjarlais said, claiming the case worker “smelled strongly of alcohol and began to scream at Marilyn and loudly clap her hands in her face and push on her body.”

“She was shouting ‘don’t you care that your baby is being taken by ambulance’, which was not a true statement,” Desjarlais said. “Marilyn was traumatized and very distraught.”

Desjarlais said Gordon had been assigned to the case worker for months.

“Marilyn had repeatedly been pleading for help. Mental health supports were denied for her and her son. She was isolated in her apartment and ignored — a devastating environment for someone who suffers from substance use disorder.”

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He says that Marilyn was evicted shortly later in September.

“Sometime during late October and early November, Marilyn was basically homeless, was in active addiction and complete mental and emotional distress. She didn’t want to return to the Raising Hope program but knew it would be shelter for her.”

Deschene said that after several calls, Gordon was able to schedule an intake appointment for Dec. 8, 2020.

“My phone number was listed as Marilyn’s contact. On the morning of December 8 someone from Raising Hope, presumably a manager, called to cancel the intake appointment citing COVID-19 as the reason for cancellation.”

He says no call to reschedule the appointment was ever received.

“Marilyn was devastated,” Desjarlais recalled, adding that a few days later Gordon visited the ER at Pasqua Hospital and was found by police lying in the snow a few blocks away from the hospital.

“Marilyn spent Christmas holidays with me and her family. She spoke repeatedly about reunification with her children and how important that was to her. Tragically, I found her deceased in her bed on the morning of Jan. 3 — a mere 26 days after being denied readmission to a government-funded program with five suites open at the time.”

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“This particular case worker’s serious workplace misconduct was witnessed and observed by residents and other staff on several occasions,” Deschene added. “Ms. Lawrence protects this individual and continues to employ her regardless of her inappropriate actions.”

Desjarlais also alleged that on Dec. 7, 2020, the case worker admitted to other program residents that she had relapsed during an emergency residents’ meeting called by Lawrence. He said that during that meeting a resident brought up Gordon but was interrupted by Lawrence.

“It would seem there is a connection between the case worker’s relapse confession followed by Ms. Lawrence’s fervent denial on December 7 and Marilyn’s denial for readmission just a day later,” Deschene said.

The call for a change of management was the first of four calls to action made by the group of advocates.

Deschene said the group also wants to see First Nations leaders, or “culturally sensitive individuals who understand the pillars of the program”, placed in leadership positions.

They also called for a First Nations leader to be appointed a co-investigator in any investigations or review of SWAP management and practices.

Lastly, Deschene said “the Ministry of Social Services must be accountable to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, the United Nation’s declaration on the rights of Indigenous people and Bill C-92.”

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Read more: New mental health unit in Saskatoon good first step but not enough, advocates say

In a statement, the Ministry of Social Services confirmed that a third party review has been commissioned.

“The Ministry has contracted MNP to conduct an independent, third-party program and board governance review of the Raising Hope Moving Families Forward program and the Street Worker’s Advocacy Project,” read the statement signed by Executive Director of Child and Family Programs Community Services.

“Our understanding is this review process will include MNP reaching out to the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations,” the statement continued. “Our priority continues to be the families in the program, and ensuring they are supported.”

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