'What's it going to take to get help?': child with brain injury shuffled through 5 York schools in 5 years

A Markham mother says her nine-year-old son, who suffered a brain injury five years ago, has been shuffled between five different schools in the York Region District School Board. This summer, after he threatened to harm others and himself, she says she couldn't find anyone to help.

Markham mom desperate to help 9-year-old son after he suffered a serious brain injury

After suffering a brain injury when he was four, this Markham boy has been shuffled through five different schools in the York Region District School Board. (Tina Mackenzie/ CBC Toronto)

Five years ago to the day, a Markham family lived through what would be the first of a series of nightmares. Their bright and funny four-year-old son was hit by a car in their driveway, leaving him unconscious for days.

"When he awoke, he was not the same child. He was completely different," said his mother Melissa Skinner, sitting at the family's dining room table — their names "The Skinners" carved deep into the wood.

Melissa Skinner hopes that by sharing her son's story, she'll be able to help him and other children with brain injuries who need access to specialized treatment and schooling. (Aizick Grimman/ CBC Toronto)

Her baby boy, who just three weeks earlier went to his first day of junior kindergarten, would never be the same.

A doctor would eventually reveal that her son — whose name CBC Toronto has agreed to withhold — sustained frontal lobe damage to his brain, leaving him with a permanent injury. The list of changes to his behaviour was overwhelming. He was diagnosed with ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder. He also has impulse control and memory issues.

"He said we have lost the son we knew. That we would need to grieve the loss of that child, that we have a new child that we need to get to know and love," Skinner recalls.

A traumatic brain injury (TBI) can be caused by events such as a car accident, a fall, a gunshot wound or a sports injury. They can be classified as mild, moderate or severe. Some TBI symptoms may get better over time, and others may not. Some survivors who've had 'mild' TBIs experience very severe, life-altering symptoms.

-The Brain Society of Toronto

Since the accident, her son, now nine, been shuffled through five different schools in the York Region District School Board.

But a couple of frightening incidents this past summer has the family desperate to find help.

Skinner's son had his medication changed in April, and by August, he was seriously threatening to harm others and himself.

"Those are shocking things to see happen and watch," said Skinner. 

"We've called so many agencies and so many people looking for help. I've had so many things said to me, 'We don't have the right postal code, he's not the right age, he's too young,'" she said.

"What's it going to take to get help? Does someone in my family need to be hurt? I almost lost my son once, do I need to actually lose him?" asked Skinner.

Skinner's son and their French Bulldog, Lily, cuddle at home in Markham. (Tina Mackenzie/ CBC Toronto)

5 schools in 5 years

Three weeks after his accident in September 2012, the boy went back to school in Keswick, where his family was living at the time. Almost immediately, there were problems. At one point, he ran away from school, managed to get home, and locked himself inside alone.

He was eventually moved to a behavioural needs program in Newmarket, but that too was short-lived.

The Skinners learned about a joint program, between the York Region District School Board and Mackenzie Health, offered in Thornhill, designed specifically for students with brain injuries.

"We were really excited about that," said Skinner. "We thought this was going to be it."

Melissa Skinner ended up renting an apartment in Thornhill, so she and her son could live nearby while he attended the class. The teacher had specialized training in brain injuries, and students had access to a neuropsychologist and behaviourist.

"For two years he was getting everything he needed," she said. "He was starting to learn; he was very far behind compared to everyone else."

But this past June, the family learned the program wouldn't continue this fall.

The York Region District School Board says 'no two students with an acquired brain injury are the same; some need specialized programming and some do not.' (York Region District School Board)

In a statement, a spokesperson with the York Region District School Board said: "The board did not cut funds to the program.  We would only close a program if there were better options to meet students' needs or if there is no interest from families to continue a specific program."

The board went on to say it offers a variety of placements for students with acquired brain injuries, working closely with families to figure out what's best for their child.

The board says placements include regular classes with indirect support or a resource assistant, or a community class within a child's home school or a regional class. 

In an email, the Ministry of Education said the YRDSB received additional funding this year for special education programs and services. the ministry went on to say school boards are responsible for making decisions on what special education programs to offer their students.

It comes down to funding, advocate says

Colleen Worsley, who has spent 20 years working in the brain injury field, says limited funding often sees children with brain injuries placed into community or specialized classrooms, which cater to kids with a variety of behavioural challenges.

An acquired brain injury (ABI) is an injury, which occurs after you are born. It is not a cognitive condition (such as Alzheimer's) or a genetic condition, (such as Tay-Sachs disease). A stroke, a brain tumour or an infection can cause an ABI. It can also result from external factors, such as a near drowning, substance abuse or a poisoning.

-The Brain Injury Society of Toronto

"Their needs are so diversified, that often there are those that don't get the attention they need," said Worsley, who is on the board of directors with the Brain Injury Society of Toronto.

"These kids need a classroom with low stimulation. They need material presented to them in smaller chunks. They have to accommodate rest breaks within the classroom for these kids to manage."

Worsley says more schools are adding brain injury training for teachers. But ultimately it comes down to funding.

"The training could be developed. But again it's funding," she said. "There's only so many dollars, so many education dollars.

"We need to figure out how to use them to support these kids."

Skinners 'will fight for him for the rest of our lives'

After sitting on a waitlist for more than a year-and-a-half, Skinner's son now takes a cab from his home in Markham to a day program at The York Centre for Children, Youth and Families in Richmond Hill.

According to its website, its treatment services are for "children living with complex mental health needs that cannot be addressed by the regular school system."

Skinner says while the centre and its staff have been very accommodating, it's not the best fit for someone like her son.

"They don't have training in brain injury," she said. "They have the right people, the right facility. They don't have the training. They do mental health."

Melissa Skinner has become a full-time advocate for her youngest son, who suffered a permanent brain injury when he was four years old. 'Everywhere that we call, everyone we talk to, doesn’t have an answer for us,' she says. (Aizick Grimman/CBC Toronto)

In an email, Dean Rokos, the executive director of The York Centre, told CBC Toronto: "All innovative programs for children facing brain and mental health issues need more funding to help organizations, such as The York Centre, to provide children with the right kind of treatment whenever and wherever they need it."

His organization is part of a campaign calling on the provincial government to invest more in these kinds of services for children.

"Children and youth in Ontario are experiencing mental health issues at rates never seen before, even as province-wide wait times for treatment remain up to 18 months, approaching all-time highs in areas such as York Region," he wrote.

The Ministry of Children and Youth Services told CBC Toronto in a statement that it is "aware of the [Skinners'] concerns and are determined to provide them with the support they need."

Skinner says she will continue to push the province to help kids like her son.

"Without the required help, I think the outcome will be very negative and that scares me the most," she said.

"We love him immensely and will fight for him for the rest of our lives if we have to."


Shannon Martin

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shannon is an award-winning reporter with CBC Toronto. She was part of the core team that launched "No Fixed Address", a hugely popular series on millenials renting and buying in Toronto. In 2016, Shannon hosted a special live broadcast on-air and on Facebook simultaneously from Toronto Pride, which won top honours in the Digital category at the RTDNA awards. Contact Shannon: or find her on Instagram at @ShannonMartinTV.