Andrea Gordon Feature Writer and Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter
August 24, 2016
Ontario’s ombudsman has vowed he will keep pressuring the province to fix its “deeply flawed” developmental services system, which has resulted in vulnerable people in crisis being abandoned, abused and stuck in hospitals, jails and homeless shelters.
Paul Dubé made the promise Wednesday after releasing a damning report based on 1,400 complaints from desperate families and including 60 recommendations. In it, he blames the government for “extreme and egregious” cases, and cites a “baffling” lack of leadership at the top.
His indictment prompted an apology to families from Helena Jazcek, Ontario’s community and social services minister, who said she accepts all the recommendations and will work “as quickly as we can” to act on them, reporting back to Dubé every six months.
“I’m certainly very sorry,” she said in response to a reporter’s question. Turning to families at Queen’s Park for Wednesday’s news conference, Jaczek said she was “appalled,” when she read the personal stories described in the ombudsman’s report.
Leadership was needed to promptly help those families, she said, “and the fact that didn’t happen, I can apologize for that.”
She later spent about 20 minutes listening to their comments and promising to help.
For Leoni and Claude Paquette, who travelled from North Bay with their medically fragile son, Martin, 25, the report and Jaczek’s words provided some reassurance.
“Hopefully it will help us in the future and families like us,” said Leoni.
But the Paquettes, in their mid-50s with three other young adult children, say they are stretched to the limit caring for Martin, who is blind, has a seizure disorder and cerebral palsy, and uses a wheelchair.
“We are healthy now, but you worry about your child’s future,” said Claude Paquette. “You feel like you are on a knife edge because if something happens to one of us, what happens to Martin?”
The Paquettes have investigated group homes in their area. However, their son’s care is so specialized, none can meet his needs, Leoni said.
The cases investigated by the ombudsman’s office highlight the need for dramatic reform, Dubé said.
Jaczek, who agreed the crisis situations outlined in the report are “entirely unacceptable,” said the government has taken charge of the file.
The top recommendation from Dubé’s hard-hitting report, called Nowhere to Turn, is a call for Jaczek’s ministry to “take the lead in fixing systemic problems province-wide” and intervene in crisis cases so that disabled adults are not returned to abusive situations, or housed in hospitals, nursing homes or other inappropriate places.
His report also recommends the government regularly audit and monitor the 360 community-based agencies serving adults with developmental disabilities and develop an urgent response mechanism for families available around the clock across the province.
Co-operation among ministries is sorely needed. Hundreds of disabled adults are needlessly placed in hospitals and psychiatric units “at significant cost to the health system,” the report says. And incarceration “has become a fail-safe alternative to secure and supportive housing.”
Dubé acknowledged the government has begun to act with the 2014 infusion of $810 million over three years, bringing annual budget up to $2.1 billion this year. The money was aimed at reducing wait lists for the 21,000 children and adults then awaiting funding. It also went toward adding 1,400 spaces for residential care and easing the transition for adolescents leaving school, where they can stay until age 21.
But there are still 5,800 adults on the wait list for Passport Program funding and 9,700 awaiting residential care, according to ministry statistics.
Dubé’s predecessor, André Marin, launched the investigation in November 2012 following a spike in complaints from families in crisis, headlines about parents abandoning their children at respite centres because they were too old or sick to care for them, and the Star’s Autism Project.
The Star investigation documented a chronic shortage of services for people of all ages with autism, particularly for those turning 18 and moving to the fragmented and confusing developmental services system.
Opposition critics, families and those in the field were deeply moved by the power of the individual stories outlined in Dubé’s exposé of broken system. But they were wary of government promises.
“People don’t need more promises, they need solutions,” said the NDP’s Cheri DiNovo, who was a member of the legislature’s Select Committee on Developmental Services. “As the ombudsman said, the real test will be whether things actually change.”
Conservative MPP and social services critic Randy Pettapiece said the ministry has known about these problems for years.
“It should not take an ombudsman’s report to spur this government into action,” he said.
Chris Beesley, chief executive officer of Community Living Ontario, said the minister’s apology and recognition of the problems was “huge.”
The report “gives people a voice,” said Beesley, whose organization serves about 12,000 developmentally disabled Ontarians, including about 9,000 in group homes.
“It gives validity to people’s suffering and their crisis situations. It’s what we do with it that will tell the tale. This is another opportunity to pay attention, to stand up and do something,” he said.
Thornhill parent advocate Laura Kirby-McIntosh was pleased the ombudsman covered all aspects of living with disabilities, including health care, family supports and housing. His accounts of real people “breathes truth into the report,” she added.
But “it’s interesting to watch a government’s tone change, the closer you get to an election,” said the parent of two teens with autism.
In the meantime, families like the Paquettes survive day by day.
“We just do what we can,” Leoni Paquette said. “Our funding is Band Aid. Is it the right amount? No. Does it stress us out. Yes. All we want is for Martin to be happy.”