New Brunswick

A boy's year in isolation: 12-year-old kept in what his mother calls a 'private jail'

In a house in the woods, deep in Sunbury County, a 12-year-old boy with behavioural disorders has been living apart from his family for one full year. 

Boy with behavioural disorders marks his first anniversary apart from his family

A 12-year-old boy with behavioural disorders has been living in this house in Sunbury County, away from his family, for a year. (Submitted)

In a house in the woods, deep in Sunbury County, a 12-year-old boy with behavioural disorders has been living apart from his family for one full year. 

His mother says taxpayers would be outraged if they knew the cost of operating a four-bedroom bungalow for just one child.  

The payroll must be a fortune, she says.

At least two dozen workers come and go in shifts around the clock. 

A minimum of two people must be on site at any given time.

Workers are there to feed the boy, give him his medication, document his behaviour and, often they have to restrain him. 

"He's in his own private jail," said the mother, who cannot be identified because it would identify her son. "It's inhumane."

The Department of Social Development won't speak to the specifics of this case but has confirmed the house is being used for a specialized placement. 

In New Brunswick, specialized placements are used in the most complex cases, for youth who can't be housed in foster care or a group home. 

Such placements cost the province upwards of $420,000 per year, per child, according to the auditor-general.  

Paying for a house in the woods

The house sits on an acre of land along a rural road that cuts through forest and passes near two lakes.  

Neighbours are scarce, yet the few who live nearby have made many complaints since the boy moved in. 

There was a sudden uptick in traffic caused by so many employees parking their cars along the street and coming and going at all hours.

Neighbours would also notice a commotion when the boy escaped from the house, sometimes for hours. Or they would see the police called in. That happened several times. 

The inside of the house is stripped bare, said the mother, to prevent the boy from weaponizing objects. It also means there are fewer things for him to damage.  

The bathroom has no shower curtain. The toilet is made of steel. The TV is encased in a Plexiglas box. 

The stove and fridge have been taken out of the kitchen and moved into a bedroom, where they're locked away, said the mother. 

She's never seen any educational materials on site, and he's not getting any schooling, she says.

"This is the harshest environment I have ever experienced," she said. "The bottom of the barrel."

How it came to this

The family has been dealing with the Department of Social Development for several years.

At one point, the mother and the boy's father — who did not respond to messages from CBC News — agreed to surrender custody to the minister with the expectation that he would get more support living in a group home. 

In April 2019, he was moved into the specialized placement and a few months later, the mother said she wanted to withdraw her consent.

In September 2019, the department applied to the courts to have the boy placed in temporary protective custody, and a six-month order was granted in October 2019.

The evidence included lengthy affidavits from educators, who had documented the boy's troubles in school from an early age. 

In Grade 1, the boy had threatened to kill an educational assistant, and that was the year he started being suspended.  

In Grade 2, he punched the principal, smashed up a phone and pretended to point a gun at his mother when she came to pick him up.

"It's not as satanic as it sounds," said the mother, who feels the school system did not do enough to support her son when he was in a state of high anxiety, confusion, and agitation. 

The Department of Social Development won't speak to the specifics of this case but has confirmed the house is being used for a specialized placement. (Submitted)

The school responded to his threats and aggression by going into lockdowns. 

During these early school years, there were visits to the hospital and psychiatric wards. 

Once, he was given emergency sedation while four guards held him down. 

He was seen and assessed by doctors and psychiatrists and was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

In March 2019, after the boy was accused of bringing knives to school, he was suspended one last time and he never went back. 

By this point, he was 11 years old and the size of an adult man. He was five feet eight inches tall, said his mother. At his heaviest, he weighed about 260 pounds.  

Social workers said his mother could no longer control him.

They said the boy was a danger to himself, his pregnant mother, his teenage sister, his toddler sister and the baby that was due in May. 

The purpose of the specialized placement was to keep everyone as safe as possible, while providing medications and intensive therapy to help the boy become more stable. 

If staff could teach him to manage his own aggression, violence, anxiety and sexually inappropriate behaviour, he'd be allowed to go back home.  

One year later, still a threat

One year later, the boy's case workers say he's still a threat, according to affidavits filed in court. 

Consequently, the Department of Social Development is seeking to extend the protective custody order by another six months.

The mother said she plans to contest that application because she's lost all faith in the specialized placement, and she is troubled that she can't visit her son at all.  

"He'll be safer here," she said from home. "If they'll give me some training and support."

On March 16, her supervised visits were cancelled because of COVID-19. 

Before, she'd been allowed at the house about three times a week — mainly Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from noon until 3 p.m.

The last time she laid eyes on her son was Easter Sunday, she said.

That's when she dropped off a home-made meal, including ham and turkey, stuffing and potatoes. 

She was told to leave it at the door and wave to her son from her car.

She describes it as a new low in his captivity. 

Incident report

The mother said she's afraid of what might be going on, now that she has no access to the house.  

She had been keeping track of changes to the staff, and her list of names had grown to 39 people. 

"There's a huge amount of turnover," she said. "I don't know how they're paying to train all these people."

She knows from experience and from reading the court evidence that her son doesn't cope well with transition. 

Social Development is seeking to extend the protective custody order by another six months.The mother says she plans to contest that application because she's lost faith in the specialized placement. (Submitted)

In his first two months in the house, his behaviour was described as extremely violent and sexual by the people who worked with him.

"He engaged in a great deal of property damage and suicidal behaviours, ideation and self-harm," said one report.

His violent behaviours included hitting, punching, spitting, grabbing, and making threats. 

He refused to take his medicine 19 times. There were 65 reports of property damage. 

Staff reported using non-violent crisis intervention techniques, including holds, blocking and disengagement strategies, 351 times.

The mother said that number is more like a thousand, now. 

The first arrest

Last month, the boy was arrested. 

He had only recently turned 12 years old and was no longer protected from criminal charges under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.  

"This is what I've been afraid of," said the mother. 

On March 10, she was called to the local RCMP detachment, where the boy was given a court date to appear on a charge of possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose.

His mother said the story that she got was that her son had reacted badly when one of the employees inside the house started to have an anxiety attack. 

She said her son ripped a strip off the door and left the house with it.

She said staff followed behind him in a car and eventually called the police, who came to arrest him. 

"They were screaming at him," said the mother. 

Later, the matter was dropped, she said because none of the staff would provide a statement. 

But she said this is a clear sign of where it's all leading, without a new strategy. 

"He's on a path to prison," she said. "He's not getting an education. He's not developing any new skills or learning strategies. He's not getting anything."

Specialized placements

Last year, New Brunswick's auditor-general scrutinized the province's growing use of specialized placements for children with complex needs, including aggression, self-harm and suicidal tendencies. 

Kim MacPherson's report raised red flags around the cost of such placements and inadequate monitoring of the service they provide. 

The 2019 report said that at any given time, eight to 10 children were in specialized placements in the Fredericton region, but it did not provide numbers for the rest of the province. MacPherson did not respond to a request for an interview.

In the report, she said specialized placements in one region were costing between $27,000 and $62,000 per month. On average, she said, they cost about $421,000 per year, per child.  

The mother is afraid her son will wind up in prison, since he's getting no help or education in isolation. (Submitted)

For comparison, children in foster care cost about $10,000 per year and caring for a child in a group home setting cost about $171,000 per year.  

In her review of 15 specialized placements that were operating in 2017-2019, she found a gap in service agreements that would be required to ensure accountability and standards of care. 

"The department does not effectively manage placement and care of children in group homes and specialized placements," she concluded.

No end date

The boy's mother said she was willing to give the specialized placement a chance but from what she's seen, it's not working. 

The home is operated by Capital Family Services on behalf of the department.

CBC contacted its director of operations, Scott Clark, asking for more information about staffing and costs. 

"Capital Family Services is a company that provides care to children that have multiple and varying needs that require our services," he responded in an email.  

"Due to the sensitive nature of the work that we do, we do not discuss our clients, or services provided to them outside of immediate family or Social Development."  

The mother said, "He's better off with me."

But the department intends to argue that the boy is not better off at home because his mother doesn't have the ability to manage him.

The mother said she was expecting a four-day hearing to start this week in the Court of Queen's Bench in Fredericton but was told that has been impacted by delays related to COVID-19. 

She said it's been interesting to see families speaking about their challenges with the isolation required by the pandemic and the strains it's created.

"That's been our life," she said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Cave is a CBC reporter based in Saint John, New Brunswick.

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