VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — What’s been described as the ‘profound’ neglect of a boy with autism has prompted a call for an overhaul of care for children with special needs.
In her report, Alone and Afraid: Lessons learned from the ordeal of a child with special needs and his family, Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, makes 11 recommendations to the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s special needs services after a detailed account of the condition of a 12-year-old Lower Mainland boy with autism in 2016. “Charlie” was removed from his mother’s care after police found the him alone, severely underweight and screaming, at which point the boy went two months without seeing a social worker.
“He’d endured years of malnutrition, inadequate and sporadic services to address his extreme special needs and he had received little education or socialization,” Charlesworth says.
“The child welfare system caught snippets of Charlie, but often failed to see him as a whole child beyond his severe special needs and too often failed to see and address the needs of his vulnerable family.”
Charlesworth says he’s thriving in foster care now, but major changes are needed in the system that failed Charlie. Her recommendations to keep this from happening again include enhanced training for social workers, as well as extra supervision and oversight to ensure they better respond to the “urgent needs of kids.”
Children and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy says improvements already being made include enhanced training and stronger supervision of social workers. She adds the ministry’s oversight and inaction were “simply inexcusable” and that it will work on fixing the communication gaps between child protection services and the ministry’s special needs services.
“It’s incumbent on government to resolve issues of practice, oversight and policy direction to support social workers to be able to perform their job duties,” Conroy writes in a press release.
“I’ve tasked the provincial director of child welfare to determine what steps will be taken to ensure social workers on the frontlines are able to respond to the urgent needs of kids and families.”
“Abhorrent” state of neglect traumatized first responders
When police responded to Charlie’s home in 2016, he weighed only 65 lbs after years of neglect, arriving to the hospital “terrified, clinging to the paramedics.” Luckily, three years on, he is in a home where he and his foster family have access to all the necessary services, despite the state he was in originally.
From the report:
“This outcome is indeed fortunate considering the condition in which Charlie was found by police – naked and filthy, severely underweight, unable to walk, and living in a bedroom covered in garbage and feces. Charlie, a child with autism spectrum disorder who does not communicate verbally, had been screaming for a half-hour before police arrived at his Lower Mainland home.”
The report goes on to say the ministry had formally heard about concerns about the boy’s well-being on eight separate occasions, including a police alert after officers responded to an argument between Charlie’s parents. Event after four child protection assessments by the ministry itself, no worker physically laid eyes on the boy. The ministry now acknowledges its failures in the case.
“The lack of eyes on Charlie by child protection workers is the most literal example of him going ‘unseen’ by the system that was supposed to support and protect him,” the report reads.
“But even when Charlie was ‘seen’ by social workers, medical and educational professionals, his needs often went unrecognized or unaddressed and these professionals did not consistently communicate effectively with one another about him.”
The failure to get Charlie the services he needs were multifaceted, however. Living in poverty, his mother also had her own struggles which went unaddressed and when contract hours for services from the ministry ran out and were terminated, she never advocated for more assistance, despite the need.
“And despite being a single mother with limited resources caring for two children, including one with extremely complex needs, Charlie’s
mother never once received respite services from [Ministry of Children and Family Development]. His mother was trying to cope with her own mental health and substance use issues, but her struggles seemed to go unnoticed and unsupported within the bigger context of the family.”
The report also shows the ministry never followed up on the reasons why the family never renewed the assistance to which it was entitled. Neither did it check how Charlie progressed when his mother took him out of public school altogether to “ostensibly homeschool” him after he had been consistently absent,”citing the fact that chronic absence from school is not considered a child protection concern under B.C. child welfare legislation.”
All these created the perfect conditions for Charlie to go neglected for years, the official account of which is now aimed at preventing it from happening ever again.