'We want a fair outcome for Matty': Sask. man to lose longtime respite caregivers

Matthew Brandon is 26 years old but has the cognitive ability of a toddler. Now, two of his caregivers may be barred from looking after him on weekends.

Board calls for exception in name of reconciliation

Matthew Brandon with respite caregiver Nick Davis after a weekend together. Davis was instructed by his full-time employer Ranch Ehrlo to cease his part-time work with Brandon by the end of the month. (Facebook/For the Love of Matthew)

Matthew Brandon spends his Tuesdays taking in the RCMP parade and museum, grabbing books at the library and eating at KFC. But not every day is so carefree.

Brandon, who is well known as "Matty", is 26-years-old but has the cognitive ability of a toddler. He is non-verbal, has cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol syndrome and autism, and requires care all hours of the day.

Shannon Gardiner and her husband Chris, who live in Sask. Beach, started out as Brandon's foster parents in 1997. He aged out of social services care in 2012 but the Gardiners fought to continue looking after him.

There is now a board called "For the Love of Matthew" (FTLOM) which oversees the Gardiners' work as well as Brandon's other caregivers and makes sure they all receive funding.

"I think Matthew effectively chose us and it's just come together in this beautiful Matthew-centric world that has been created," said Gardiner. "We lovingly do it because we know that otherwise he will fall back into the cracks."
Shannon Gardiner (pictured) and her husband Chris started out as Brandon’s foster parents in 1997. (CBC News)

Brandon's care includes a three-pronged approach. He is looked after by the Gardiners at home, attends a day program at Ranch Ehrlo on weekdays and goes to independent respite on weekends.

Sami Melles and Nick Davis, who both work at Ranch Ehrlo during the week, have alternated giving respite care to Brandon by taking him into their homes on weekends and on outings in the community since 2013.

Now, Ranch Ehrlo says Melles and Davis have to stop offering this contract work to FTLOM.

"When Friday rolls around and his buddy isn't taking him home, this is going to be a tremendous assault on his dignity because he's not going to understand why this is happening," said Gardiner. "And it's not going to allow the break that my husband and I need, the separation, for him to go out and do independent things from us and participate in a different family dynamic that he's grown used to."

Old policy not enforced

Andrea Brittin, president and CEO of Ranch Ehrlo Society, said that any secondary employment of staff has to be approved by the organization. She said they go through a number of factors to determine if there is any risk to clients, staff or the agency as a whole. It's a policy that was always in place, she said, but wasn't consistently implemented until recently.

"It is a concern to me that we have staff, at times, who are coming to work who are tired, who are just not emotionally able to carry out their duties," Brittin said. "We need to make sure that the people who come to work in our organization are well rested, that they're healthy, both emotionally and physically, because the work we do here at the Ranch is not easy work."

"The people that we serve have very complex needs, they're vulnerable, and they're coming to us for help and we must ensure that we're able to provide the help they need and deserve."

Caregiver Sami Melles (left) was told to give up caring for Brandon on weekends by his employer, Ranch Ehrlo. (Facebook/For the Love of Matthew)

Brittin acknowledged that finding respite providers can be an issue but said the Ranch provided a "fair notice period" to the organization to find alternate options.

In September, Melles and Davis informed FTLOM that the Ranch asked them to cease their work with the organization. The pair worked privately with the Ranch in an attempt to reach an alternate agreement but were ultimately asked to pick between their full-time employment and their work with FTLOM by March 1. They decided to terminate their respite contracts but were allowed to continue working with Brandon until March 29.

"It just doesn't seem fair to a guy like Matthew who expects that he has this in his world," said Gardiner. "It's really about Matthew, and how he is going to accept this, which is not going to go over well."

Reconciliation hopes

Melles began providing alternate care to Brandon over 12 years ago, before he started working at the Ranch. He met Davis there, determined he was also forming a bond with Brandon, and they began sharing the responsibility.

Cora Sellers, board member with For the Love of Matthew, said she and the other board members have been "terrified" for Brandon's well-being since they found out about the policy coming into effect.

"It takes him a very long time to trust anyone, never mind trust them to the point where they can actually engage with him for more than a short amount of time," she said. "Taking away Nick and Sami is going to severely impact his ability to engage in community and live a dignified life."

"We're afraid for Matty's future if this is to go through."
Brandon visits the RCMP parade and museum with his caregiver Shannon Gardiner nearly every Tuesday. (CBC News)

Sellers said Brandon, who is Indigenous, is a prime example of the residential school effect.

He was born with FAS, abused in his home and filtered through social care until he met the Gardiners and found a permanent home, she said.

"The Ranch could take a leadership role and change their policy, overlook their policy, modify their policy, in recognition of the spirit of reconciliation to accommodate Matty," said Sellers. "We don't want to discuss anymore. We want a fair outcome for Matty in his best interest."

Social services not getting involved

Sellers said the board will be posting a respite worker position as soon as possible, but doubt they will find anyone who fits well with Brandon and his needs, and is willing to do the job for the $20 an hour that they were able to pay Melles and Davis.

For The Love of Matthew Association Inc. received $204,830 from the Ministry of Social Services in the 2016-17 fiscal year. Ranch Ehrlo was compensated for Brandon's day program separately from that amount.

The Ministry told CBC it contracts work to various service providers and does not get involved in the day-to-day operations of those entities.   
Brandon (centre) with his caregivers Chris and Shannon Gardiner at RCMP Depot division. (Chris Graham)

"Organizations such as For the Love of Mathew Association Inc. and Ranch Ehrlo establish their own human resource policies, including items such as compensation, and codes of conduct," a spokesperson for the Ministry said in a statement. "Through monitoring mechanisms, the Ministry assesses the quality of service as it relates to the individual client."

The Ministry would not provide a comment on the specific case, citing privacy legislation.

About the Author

Alex Soloducha is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan.