Winnipeg woman beaten by 16-year-old son with autism says she can no longer care for him

A Winnipeg mother says she needs to surrender control of her now teenage son, who has autism and sometimes becomes violent, but advocates say there are too few places to house people like the teen.

Mother wants to surrender him to Child and Family Services, but court says he should live with her

The mother of a 16-year-boy with autism says these bruises emerged after her son assaulted her. She doesn't want to file a formal complaint, but does want Child and Family Services to assume care for her son, saying she can no longer control him. (Submitted)

A Winnipeg woman says she's no longer able to care for her 16-year-old son, who has autism, because of his violence toward her.

She wants to surrender guardianship to Winnipeg Child and Family Services — but the agency says he needs to stay with her. 

CBC News is not identifying the woman or her son to protect their privacy. We've given her the pseudonym of Olivia and her son the pseudonym of Noah.

Noah has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and suffers from anxiety. 

"He is strong. He can throw me. That's a bad day, Bruises. Lots of bruises, and just anger.… I think I've lost consciousness one time," Olivia said.

"I can't get through to him. Like, I look at him and I try to calm him, and it's just — he's not even himself."

Olivia said there have been numerous instances when she's locked him out of the house and called police after he's beaten her.

The mom says she would frequently have to bar her door to keep her son from re-entering the house when he became violent. She said she would often call police and lock him outside. (John Einarson/CBC)

Police have been able to calm him down, she says, but in a few days, he'd act violently again. Officers have asked her to file a formal complaint, but she refused. 

Noah is nearly six feet tall. He's talented, smart and can come across as a "know-it-all," his mother said. He has been home-schooled all his life. 

"We would play games, read books. He loves news. Summertime is usually road trips — even two to three weeks at a time," she said.

No other means of expression

Olivia said her son was apprehended by Winnipeg's Family and Child Services last December, when a pediatrician notified CFS after hearing about Noah's violence. 

Noah was placed into the agency's Emergency Placement Resource program — where he was  temporarily housed at shelters and hospitals. But Olivia said on June 15, a court ordered Noah to live with her permanently — a decision she said is not realistic. 

WATCH | Olivia shares challenges of living with her son:

Beaten by 16-year-old son with autism

2 years ago
Duration 1:48
A Winnipeg woman says she's no longer able to care for her 16-year-old son, who has autism, because of his violence toward her.

She's no longer able to manage his behaviour and is seeking to voluntarily surrender her guardianship, she said.

"I just don't know that I could ever feel safe," she said. 

Dr. Jennifer Frain, a clinical psychologist and the executive director of New Directions — an organization dedicated to providing services for people with disabilities — said violence from people with autism results from lacking other means to express themselves.

"Autism is sensory and behavioural. The world is not processed in the same way as for other folks," Frain said. 

She said when people living with autism don't have ways to manage their frustration, discomfort or agitation, they express themselves physically.

"It's not violence in the way that we understand violence. It's more … like they don't have other ways to manage," said Frain. 

I believe there can be collaborative solutions that don't include leaving it up to the parent who's already in active burnout.- Angela Taylor, Inspire Community Outreach

She doesn't think Noah should go back to living with his mom.

"I don't know why the judge made that plan, but it's not a good one and it will unravel really quickly," she said. 

Frain said a long-term solution needs to be put in place for Noah, including a specialized placement, such as a group home, with staff trained to work with people with disabilities. Staff could also work with his mom to ensure they have a healthy and strong relationship. 

Olivia said the court order also asked her to contact Youth Mobile Crisis Services, CFS and police immediately should a physical assault happen. But Olivia said there have been times when her son would prevent her from using her phone, making it impossible to call anyone.

"The violence just keeps escalating. He punches and he kicks. And he's really strong. I can't defend myself, and if I do defend myself, it enrages him more," she said. 

The boy's mom said she sustained these bruises from her son's assault. 'I'm old,' she says. 'I can't take this any more.' (Submitted)

Manitoba's Department of Child and Family Services said it can't comment on the specific case due to confidentiality. 

"The goal of child welfare agencies [is] to work with families to provide support and [ensure] the best interests of the child," the department said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

If a child is violent and the parent has been assaulted or is in danger, an agency will work with police to assess and provide appropriate intervention in the family, the department spokesperson said.

Ran away from shelters, hospitals 

Olivia said since Noah was placed in the Emergency Placement Resource program in December, he ran away from shelters and hospitals about a dozen times. 

Police were called in, and searches were escalated because he's considered a vulnerable person.

"I have sobbed and cried, worried that he was … dead," said Olivia. 

"Any parent out there who's had a missing child, I think they'll know exactly how I feel. It's just absolute terror, combined with sadness that is immeasurable." 

At times, Noah would run home, back to Olivia's house, travelling more than 10 kilometres by foot, she said. 

"I think the challenge for a lot of children with autism might be moving into another home," said James Kelm, advocacy co-ordinator at Inclusion Winnipeg.  ​​

"There's new people, new places, and often a young person with autism would want things to stay the same, and it's challenging for there to be changes."

The Department of Families said the emergency placement program is only used when it is unsafe for a child to remain where they are residing and no other placement options are available.

Daphne Penrose, the Manitoba Advocate for Children and Youth, said she can't comment specifically on Olivia and Noah's case, but said an emergency placement resource is typically not appropriate for children with disabilities.

Specialized placements lacking 

Frain and Penrose believe a child like Noah should be put into a specialized placement, where he can have access to trained professionals and services.   

"Pivoting toward specialized placements is the most appropriate thing to do when dealing with any type of child with a significantly high need and where their self-regulation can become quite aggressive," Penrose said. 

Daphne Penrose is Manitoba's Advocate for Children and Youth. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Frain said a regular foster care placement wouldn't suit Noah, because the family adopting might not be equipped with resources to manage his feelings and responses. 

"It's really about finding a team that can work with the family and provide residential support for the young man, as the parents are not able to manage his behaviour any more, and that's absolutely no fault of their own … that's a reality," Frain said. 

But specialized placements, which are individually customized, are hard to come by.

"In the CFS system … we don't have a lot of extra resources or extra space," she said. 

"It's oftentimes that I need to develop or define a [placement]," Frain said. "But there's often a waiting list for those kinds of specialized beds, and they're more expensive than a regular foster home." 

Frain said New Directions has opened four homes for children with autism, who were languishing in the shelter system. Those homes remain full today, as the children mature into adulthood. 

Crisis management not enough

Angela Taylor, CEO of Inspire Community Outreach, says Child and Family Services resources in CFS are solely focused on crisis management, not problem-solving.

"If the child is in a state of crisis, then we can call in the police, mobile crisis, different excellent resources like that, and unfortunately it's not enough," said Taylor, whose organization provides education on disabilities for families, clinicians and service providers like CFS.

"It's not adapting the environment to that unique child."

I love him dearly..… I would die for this child if his life could just be made better. But I'm also realistic.- 'Olivia'

That also means families that include children with autism and complex needs have a much higher likelihood of experiencing separation, said Taylor, who grew up with disabilities and is raising a child with autism.

She said it's concerning to hear Noah will remain living with his mom, especially when she feels unsafe. 

"When the system is taxed the way it is, perhaps that's the best solution that they understand, but I believe there can be collaborative solutions that don't include leaving it up to the parent who's already in active burnout."

Respite not enough, says mother 

Since June 26, Noah has been staying at his mom's house. She said CFS staff fear that if he was placed at a shelter and ran away, his safety would be jeopardized because of the heat. 

Olivia was granted respite care for four hours a day two weeks ago, but said it doesn't help much.

"I'm exhausted," she said. "I'm old. I can't take this any more." 

She said she's made it clear to CFS she wants to surrender guardianship. 

"I love him dearly. There's nothing I wouldn't do.… I would die for this child if his life could just be made better. But I'm also realistic."