Teen in care ends up in coma after complaining to family services about pain for weeks

The family of a 17-year-old Manitoba girl who ended up in hospital with brain inflammation said her medical concerns were ignored and dismissed for weeks by the youth detention centre and Child and Family Services.

17-year-old who ended up with brain inflammation was told she had flu, was 'faking it,' says family

The family of a 17-year-old girl says her medical concerns were ignored for weeks by staff at her youth detention centre and her group home. CBC is concealing the identity of her and her family because she is in the care of Child and Family Services and a young offender. (Submitted by family)

The family of a Manitoba teenager who ended up critically ill in hospital says her medical concerns were ignored and dismissed for weeks by the youth detention centre and the group home responsible for her care.

CBC is calling the 17-year-old Sarah, as she can't be named because she is under the care of Manitoba Child and Family Services and is a young offender.

The family — including her father and siblings — said Sarah complained for over a month, until she eventually ended up in hospital in critical condition, with brain inflammation and a collapsed lung. She was in a coma for a week following surgery.

"She was telling everybody that she was having major headaches, and she was having pains in her legs, and nobody took her seriously," said her sister, 21, who CBC is also not naming in order to protect Sarah's identity.

"They kept saying that, 'Oh you're trying to get out of chores.'"

Told she was 'faking it', had the flu

The First Nations teen first began complaining about pain at the beginning of March, while she was in the Manitoba Youth Centre — a detention facility in Winnipeg.

Sarah told doctors there she had headaches, nausea, vomiting, difficulty eating, and swelling in her hands and feet.

The doctors told her she had the flu, but weeks later, the pain was increasing.

"They kept saying that she wasn't sick, that she was faking it," said her sister. "My sister was treated that she was a liar, basically."

"She called me crying," said another of Sarah's sisters, 19. "I was like, 'Why don't they take you to the hospital?' She said they said she has the flu and it will just go away," she said.

She reached out to the teen's CFS worker to try to get her help, she said, but her repeated calls were ignored.

Told it was a migraine, given Tylenol

Sarah was transferred to a group home mid-March, where the pain intensified, her family said, but her complaints continued to be ignored.

The family said her CFS worker failed to pass along her medical records to the group home, meaning it didn't receive the necessary information about what had been happening.

A few days into her stay, Sarah was seen by the group home's doctor, and then taken to St. Boniface hospital.

"The specialist there told the group home that she was faking it, that nothing is wrong with her, that it was just a migraine, and gave her Tylenol," said her 19-year-old sister.

"She was throwing up, like, she couldn't control it. She kept having headaches and she felt cold all the time and it was hard for her to move."

The father of a teenager who ended up in hospital told CBC News he's concerned other youth in care are not having their medical concerns properly addressed. Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth says it's investigating. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

The family said Sarah got to the point where she couldn't even move off a couch.

"A week before she came into the hospital, she stopped walking up the stairs. They still didn't take her seriously, then," the 19-year-old said.

"She stopped responding and she stopped moving at all, like, even opening her eyes."

The family says that on April 1, Sarah's probation officer finally pressured the group home to send her to the emergency room.

Lung collapsed, coma

Within days of being admitted to hospital, Sarah's left lung collapsed and she had to be sedated for surgery.

She didn't wake up after the surgery — and was in a coma for over a week.

She woke up during the Easter weekend, and is slowly recovering, but the family is still waiting for answers. They still haven't been told what caused Sarah's illness initially.

They said they've been told she will likely need to stay in hospital for another month.

"When my sister woke up, you could tell how upset she was that she wasn't heard, and how scary it was for her," said Sarah's 21-year-old sister.

Father not told for days

Sarah's father, who doesn't live in Manitoba, said he rushed to the hospital when he found out.

"I didn't even know. They didn't even get ahold of me. They didn't contact me. They didn't let me know what was going on with my girl," he said.

"Getting a call like that — 'Your daughter is in critical condition in the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.'"

Sarah's father said he's worried his daughter's concerns were ignored because she is a young offender.

"[She was] just making bad choices in life, like a lot of youth do, right? But that doesn't give the system the right to neglect these youth that are in their care, as they [did] with my daughter," he said.

"Being bedridden and laying down in a bed for weeks in a youth centre or in a group home, that's straight neglect. There is no words for it," the father said.

"They let my daughter lay sick in bed for how long? Weeks," he said.

The family says the teenager's illness progressed from headaches, nausea, vomiting and swelling, to the point where she couldn't move or open her eyes. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Sarah's father said he's concerned other youth might also be in medical need and have their concerns ignored.

"How many children are they neglecting to listen to … and telling them that they're lying, and telling them that they're just doing this to get out of work, or to get out of doing chores?" he said.

"It was CFS's duty to take care of my girl," he said. "These guys are in care of lives. And there is a life in the hospital right now that we just about lost.

"I just about lost my daughter."

Advocate investigating, province won't comment

The Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth confirmed to CBC News that it is looking into what happened.

"Our office is aware of the situation and we have been actively working to ensure the rights of the youth are being protected, services are responding appropriately to the situation, and also that the family is getting what they need," wrote Ainsley Krone, the deputy Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth.

The advocate's office has the power to gather information, intervene and monitor decisions that impact youth, she added.

The family said it's also been receiving support from the First Nations Family Advocate Office.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice and the Department of Families said in a statement they could not comment on the case, citing confidentiality set out under The CFS Act and The Personal Health Information Act.

"The documentation required by the child welfare, justice and health-care systems is highly regulated and co-ordinated to help ensure individuals receive timely, appropriate care," the spokesperson wrote.

The family of a Manitoba teenager who ended up critically ill in hospital says her medical concerns were ignored and dismissed for weeks by the youth detention centre and the group home responsible for her care. 2:25

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Winnipeg. She previously worked for CBC in Halifax and Sudbury. Connect with her @CBCMarina or