British Columbia

B.C. disabled services rapped after girl left with corpse

The case of a teenager with Down syndrome left alone with her dead mother for days highlights the need for improvements to British Columbia's services for disabled children, says the province's Representative for Children and Youth.

The case of a teenager with Down syndrome left alone with her dead mother for days highlights the need for improvements to British Columbia's services for disabled children, says the province's Representative for Children and Youth.

The 15-year-old girl — who can't be named —  was found alone with the body of her mother in a mobile home in Cultus Lake east of Vancouver in September 2010.

The girl's mother had been dead for a week before concerned neighbours finally broke into the home and found the girl emaciated and filthy, sitting on the couch with the decomposing body on the floor nearby.

Children and Youth representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond released her report into the matter on Monday morning in Vancouver.

"While the incident is so deeply disturbing, my investigation found that details of the girl's life prior to her mother's death were equally troubling. The neglect of her needs for a very long period of time before her mother's death was significant," Turpel-Lafond said.

Struggling with poverty and addiction alone

Turpel-Lafond concluded that the mother's loss of her job and vehicle left her struggling with addiction, poverty and isolation, overwhelmed and unable to take care of a special needs child without help.

Children's representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has recommended changes to the way the province deals with families with disabled children. (CBC)

Toward the end of her life, the mother could barely walk, and at one stage the family's welfare benefits were cut off without any followup, she notes.

"In circumstances where it is clear that a single parent with a child with special needs is struggling financially, all efforts need to be made to make sure the child’s well-being is a priority. It is shocking that income assistance benefits could be cancelled, knowing these circumstances, without any contact with the family or MCFD," she wrote.

"The child and her mother became virtually confined inside their home for long periods of time, and more and more isolated," she said in her report.

Turpel-Lafond said service providers focused on the mother's needs while ignoring the girl's.

The girl's hearing aid was not working for an unknown length of time, her visits to doctors decreased despite her worsening health, her overnight stays with a respite worker ended and she missed a lot of school.

Not enough support

Turpel-Lafond made four recommendations including that welfare payments should never be cut off to families with disabled children unless personal contact is made with that family, 

She also said the ministry should balance social worker's caseloads better, develop plans to work better with other government departments, and draw up a detailed strategy in similar cases in the future.

"There are not enough supports available for parents and caregivers who cannot meet the expectations of this complex system, or who do not wish to or are unable to navigate the spectrum of services on their own."

"This investigation shows the sad, full results of the inevitable breakdown when such a parent does not receive the essential support of service providers and their communities," she concluded.

As for the girl, Turpel-Lafond said she suffered emotional trauma and confusion during the event but is now thriving in a foster home.

Minister promises changes

After the report's release, Minister of Children and Family Development Mary McNeil agreed that mistakes were made in the case, but said Turpel-Lafond's recommendations will be followed.

B.C.'s Minister of Children and Family Development Mary McNeil says the report's recommendations will be adopted. (CBC)
"The difference is I'm a new minister … and I'm working closely with the representative … I'm just as concerned about this as she is ... and I'm going to make sure we act," she said.

In December Turpel-Lafond demanded immediate changes to Ministry of Children and Family Development's policies after the staff failed to report the case to her office.

At the time, Turpel-Lafond said her preliminary findings indicate that the ministry failed in its statutory duty to report the critical injuries of a child to her office.

With files from The Canadian Press