The body responsible for advocating for children and youth is asking the province to overhaul how it cares for vulnerable youth with special needs.
The recommendations come in a report released Monday from the Representative for Children and Youth about a 12-year-old boy with “complex special needs” who was repeatedly overlooked by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
The report told the story of “Charlie,” an Indigenous Lower Mainland boy who was removed from his single mother in January 2016 after suffering a “critical injury.”
He is now living in a supportive foster home and is “well nourished and healthy,” as well as being described as “affectionate, clever and observant.”
He was not diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder till he was six, despite showing signs of the disorder at three years old.
When first responders found the child after reports of a “family argument” at the home, they found Charlie weighing 65lbs and with “signs of neglect so abhorrent that first responders who arrived at the home were traumatized.”
Charlie was “naked and filthy, severely underweight, unable to walk, and living in a bedroom covered in garbage and feces,” representative Jennifer Charlesworth said.
The boy, who is nonverbal, had been “screaming for a half hour” before police arrived.
Charlie was “terrified and clinging to the paramedics” when he was removed from the home.
This is the story of "Charlie," a Lower Mainland child w/ autism spectrum disorder who @RCYBC says was removed from his single mom in Jan 2016. At the time, he was 12 years old and weighed just 65 pounds.#bcpoli@BlackPressMedia— Kat Slepian (@katslepian) December 10, 2018
Charlie’s removal came nearly 10 years after his family first came into contact with the ministry in what the agency called a “multiple system failure.”
Charlesworth said that despite eight formal reports to the ministry concerned about Charlie’s health and four separate child protection assessments by MCFD, no social worker ever laid eyes on Charlie until he was taken from his mother in 2016.
Charlesworth described a plethora of red flags that the ministry failed to respond to.
“Charlie was not yet five when doctors thought he was being neglected,” she said.
“But there was no medical reason for his failure to thrive.”
The child’s condition improved when he was in school, Charlesworth said, but both the school and social workers failed to follow up when he missed more than 100 days in two years before his mother withdrew him altogether.
Even though Charlie was found in terrible condition, Charlesworth said there was “lots of indication that this mom was doing the best she could.”
Charlie was being cared for by a single mom struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.
The ministry did not make any effort to connect Charlie, whose father is Indigenous, with his culture or extended family. Charlie’s father lived on-and-off at the family home until 2012. After he moved out, he resumed making monthly child support payments but Charlie’s mother did not allow him to see their son.
“It was more than a year [after his removal from his mother] before his file was transferred to an Aboriginal guardianship office that was more likely to recognize and take advantage of the protective factors of culture to Charlie’s benefit,” the report read.
Throughout his life, Charlie lived in poverty and had unstable housing.
Despite their circumstances, Charlie’s mother never received respite care, and any aid they did receive went away when “contract hours ran out” or the mom said she didn’t need it anymore.
Charlesworth said the stigma of working with MCFD caused the mom to shy away from asking for help.
The mom was “fearful she would be blamed for the child not doing well,” Charlesworth said, and was “terrified of her child being removed.”
The report made 11 recommendations, which were accepted fully by the province.
Chief among them was a “comprehensive assessment” of the Children and Youth with Special Needs division of MCFD.
The assessment is scheduled to be completed by fall 2019, with implementation to follow in the spring of 2020.
While the review is underway, the agency called on MCFD to take “immediate steps” to improve families’ access to services for their special needs kids, including respite care and medical benefits.
The ministry is also tasked with finding a way to improve information sharing between different people responsible for watching over a vulnerable child’s health.