by Rachel Mendleson MACLEANS on Friday, August 7, 2009
After months of battling social services to keep her grandson close to their Nova Scotia community, Gloria learned from a voice mail message that she had lost. The recording, left on July 6, informed her that in a few days, the 14-year-old, who has severe emotional and behavioural difficulties, would be sent to a residential treatment facility near Trenton, Ont., more than 1,500 km away from home. Of immediate concern, however, was that she’d have to wait until the next morning to find out how long he’d be gone, or when she’d have to say goodbye.
Gloria has raised Nathan, who was abandoned by both parents, since he was four. Last October, his impulsive behaviour, drug use and habitual running away prompted her to temporarily give up custody, thinking the province “would put him some place where he would get help,” she says. Along with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, he is suspected of having an alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder. But Nathan continued to run and get himself deeper into trouble. Within months, he was shuffled through six placements with foster families and in group homes, and racked up a slew of criminal charges. Nova Scotia determined that neither it—nor she—could meet his needs, and decided he should go to Cinnamon Hills, a private treatment facility in Utah, where it had sent a number of youth with similar issues. When all else fails, provincial governments are often willing to dispense huge amounts of money to ship the most critical cases to residential treatment facilities far from home.
Outraged, Gloria, whose name and that of her grandson have been changed, poured thousands of dollars into legal services to fight the decision, but the judge upheld the ruling. By then, her concern had become about more than the distance: it emerged that a former Cinnamon Hills worker, Joy Lynette Andrews, was facing charges relating to an alleged sexual relationship with a 16-year-old resident. (The 34-year-old pleaded not guilty last month.) Though Nathan didn’t end up going to Utah (he was deemed inadmissible to the U.S.), the alternative of Trenton has left Gloria only marginally less desperate. “He doesn’t need to be going where he’s going,” she says. “That child needs to be loved.” (Days after his arrival in Trenton, Nathan ran away. He was later returned by police.)
Of the roughly 1,700 kids in the care of Nova Scotia’s Community Services Department, more than 98 per cent are placed in foster families and group homes within the province. But for those who require extensive treatment for complex emotional and behavioural difficulties, says Rickcola Slawter, youth duty council for the province’s legal aid, “there’s really nothing here.” Though a long-term residential treatment centre is in the planning stages, funding has yet to be secured. Currently, the only option is Wood Street, a locked-door facility in Truro for short-term stabilization. So for now, when a longer-term solution is required, Community Services casts the net further afield. Last year, 25 youth were placed in treatment facilities elsewhere in Canada and the U.S. Since 2004, 20 kids have gone to Cinnamon Hills. According to Vicki Wood, director of child welfare for the department, the tuition—$114,000 annually—is comparable to that of Nova Scotia programs, but “the range of specialists [at Cinnamon Hills] would far outstrip anything that we could offer here.” As for the allegation of mistreatment, she says, “We have absolutely no knowledge of substantiated abuse,” adding that in child welfare cases, the burden of proof “is much lower than for a criminal test.” And though Wood acknowledges that the 5,000 km between Halifax and St. George, Utah, [and miles of absolute desert in all direction should the children decide to run] presents a challenge for families, she insists subsidized visits [For the families or for the social worker? How about the ombudsman (Click here to read article concerning NS ombudsman on this site) who is suppose to watch over them and see that they are aware of their rights? ] and regular phone calls [Is NS footing the bill for these? How often can children call or receive phone calls] can bridge the gap: “It’s the constant and regular contact that’s important, not the distance over it.”
This explanation is not good enough for Bernard Richard, the ombudsman in New Brunswick, which also occassionally sends troubled kids out of the province. [Note: There is no reponse from the NS ombudsman - Read article link directly above to read about the failing of the NS ombudsman's office] Struck by how many complaints he was receiving about inadequate services for kids with complex mental health needs, Richard, who is also the province’s child and youth advocate, dug up the files of seven such cases. His resulting 2008 report, “Connecting the dots,” chronicles the failure of a system that bounced these kids between foster families, group homes, hospitals and jail without providing appropriate treatment. In one instance, a 13-year-old boy was kept in the province’s youth detention centre for several weeks in 2005, not due to committing a crime, but rather because “there was nowhere else to send him.” As a young adult, he was later among three of the seven who were sent to Spurwink, a highly specialized treatment residence in Portland, Maine, where the annual cost of comprehensive services ranges from $125,000 to $500,000 per person. [Note: potential cost is more than Viki Wood was willing to admit to above] Says Richard, “I fail to be convinced that we can’t do this locally.” The 48 recommendations he came up with push hard for community-based treatment options. The idea, he says, is to give these kids the stability and help they so desperately need—long before they require a half-million-dollar solution. [In the NS Children Services Act, all kinds of services are suppose to be extended to the families and children before the government even thinks of removing children from the families - these are NOT given]
However, when she finally got word from social services that he would likely be in Ontario for a year, it was her emotions, not mettle, that came to the fore. “When he comes back, we’re all strangers,” she says. “It’s really sad for this child.”