B.C. parents file lawsuit alleging ‘gross negligence’ in care of their autistic son

Click to play video: 'Parents of man with autism sue B.C. government and agencies'
Parents of man with autism sue B.C. government and agencies
The parents of a young man with severe autism are suing the B.C. children's ministry, a care home and others, over the living conditions of their 20-year-old son. Jolie Nolin reports. – Sep 29, 2022

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

The family of an autistic man in the Lower Mainland has filed a lawsuit alleging he was subjected to a “harmful and injurious living environment” while in residential care as a minor.

The plaintiffs, who have asked not to be named for their son’s protection, claim that multiple parties — including the B.C. government — failed to seek or act upon medical recommendations for the boy, who was in a “position of extreme vulnerability” and lived with “complex disabilities.”

“They promised to help but broke that promise,” his father told Global News.

“They isolated him from his family and put him in solitary confinement, where he harmed himself without any apparent efforts by staff to protect him because they prioritized work-safe concerns over my son’s basic human rights.”

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According to a notice of civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court, the boy — whose pseudonym is ‘Leo’ — began exhibiting increasingly “self-injurious behaviours” around the age of 14, such as head-banging, throwing himself down the stairs, and violence towards others and properties.

Later that year, his parents entered into a care arrangement with the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), and on Nov. 15, 2017, he moved into a residence, where it was expected he would receive “dignified care in a reasonably safe setting,” the document states.

“During the Placement, Leo sustained injuries, including serious physical and psychological harm, caused or contributed to by the defendants’ wrongs, collectively or individually,” it claims.

Other defendants named in the lawsuit include parties contracted to provide a variety of services to Leo, such as behavioural intervention, and various controlling parties of the properties where he stayed periodically until 2019.

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Global News reached out to all defendants whose contact information could be found online. All but three did not respond.

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By email, MCFD said it could not comment publicly on or confirm involvement with any particular child, youth or family.

“We take allegations of abuse within the care system very seriously, and anytime there is a concern, the ministry will assess the situation and take action to ensure the safety of all children and youth in the home if necessary,” said MCFD by email. “Staff may also conduct a Quality of Care Review or Investigation.”

The ministry said when a child or youth is under its care, the caregiver, guardianship and resource workers collaborate on home- and community-based supports “that respond to the unique needs of the child,” and its focus is on delivering the proper safety and care needed to thrive.

Community Living BC said it takes the notice of claim “seriously” and is reviewing it, but could not comment further on the matter before the courts.

“We will respond together with the other named parties through the courts,” wrote Randy Schmidt, executive director of communications and stakeholder relations.

BC Housing, meanwhile, said it purchases buildings for use as group homes on behalf of sponsoring ministries, such as Community Living BC, through the Provincial Rental Housing Corporation — which is named as a defendant in the notice of claim.

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“BC Housing is reviewing the Notice of Civil Claim and will participate in proceedings as warranted to represent the interests of the Provincial Rental Housing Corporation which owns one of the properties in which the plaintiff lived during his placement,” it wrote.

“We are not involved in the day-to-day operations of these properties, and only periodically inspect the sites to ensure the physical asset’s condition remains appropriate for its intended use.”

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In the notice of claim, the plaintiffs allege the defendants prioritized “worker safety over the best interests” of the child in their care, citing Leo’s alleged confinement as an example.

They outline hundreds of alleged episodes of self-harm and crying between 2017 and 2019, including an instance of Leo “jumping from the staircase” three times and having only been taken to the hospital after the third jump. On Sept. 12, 2018, alone, the notice of claim states that the teen struck himself more than 200 times, resulting in his hospitalization until Nov. 2 that year.

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Between 2017 and 2019, Leo was taken to the hospital five times — “gross negligence” and “willful blindness” allegedly causing a range of his injuries, including cumulative brain injuries, visual impairments, traumatic cataracts facial deformations, cauliflower ears, suicidal attempts, abandonment issues, incontinence, decline in function, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and more.

“He came out much more disabled than before,” said his father, whose pseudonym is Tony.

“The worst thing is having acquired the habit of self-injury and that is the one thing that makes the family live in fear every day.”

Tony and his partner also allege Leo had inadequate assistance with daily activities while in care, leading him to defecate in his living space, and allege his access to family, personal belongings, and outdoor time was unduly restricted. They claim the teen was deprived of dignity, warmth, empathy, company, adequate medical and caregiver supervision, and more.

Prior to entering the care arrangement, Tony said Leo was “full of joy,” and showed “enormous potential for life, for joy.” He is now 20 years old.

“He used to love writing, painting, skiing, travelling,” he recalled. “That is a good life that he has lived before … we’re not asking much. We just want to give him the dignity that he once had.”

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Tony said the family is now caught in a bind — now that Leo is an adult, they don’t have enough funding support to give him everything he needs to thrive, but they fear placing him in residential care once more. Leo is currently living in a basement suite in his parent’s home, with support from some in-home care workers.

Bruce Petherick, an autistic advocate with Autism Canada, said there is a lack of support for autistic people, families, caregivers and professionals from “diagnosis to old age.” He said he couldn’t speak about the specifics of the case but could comment broadly on autism supports across the country.

“The minute you hit 18, almost all services disappear,” he told Global News. “We all need support in various needs.

“Some people need high levels of support, daily support, they need support with basic functions. Some people, like myself perhaps, need support for help with things like shopping or executive function problems, but the support is missing at all levels.”

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Tony and his family are seeking punitive damages and coverage for the costs of future care, which could reach nearly $800,000 per year. Defendants in the lawsuit have 21 days to respond to the civil claim after the date it was served to them.

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