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Editorial: How can Ontario be failing so many families?

The measure of a just society is how it cares for its most vulnerable citizens. Given the experience of scores of families of children with severe disabilities, Ontario is falling short. Very short.
Editorial: Election's over — time to pay the piper

The measure of a just society is how it cares for its most vulnerable citizens.

Given the experience of scores of families of children with severe disabilities, Ontario is falling short. Very short.

We learned last week of the heart-wrenching story of Dr. Nicole Desmarais, a Greater Sudbury mother who likely will have to make her son a ward of the state in order for the boy to receive the intensive psychological therapy he needs.

She adopted him five years ago from a Serbian orphanage, a facility which, from her description of the "sensitive" way it cared for him, sounds positively medieval — he was kept tied to a mattress in a locked room, denied that to which we're all entitled: kind words, human contact, safety, love.

Humans are animals like any other. If you beat a dog daily, it learns either to fear people and cower in their presence, or to hate them and attack first.

For Desmarais' son, who spent those psychologically formative years between infancy and age four caged like an animal, the world became a place of pain, fear and mistrust, a dark place, a place no one would want to be.

And that experience broke him.

He can't form the normal emotional bonds that allow human beings to connect with one another. He can't process his feelings or move through the world in a normal way. For him, existence is torturous stew of potential threats from which he must defend himself.

And what is the result of all this trauma? Attacks on other children, the killing of a pet, the strangling of a two-year-old, theft of weapons, molestation.

In the words of a doctor at Toronto Sick Kids who examined him, the boy is a "wildcat."

But he's not some kind of monster. He's a sad, damaged little boy who needs help.

In his dark world, there has been one light: Desmarais. Actually, two. The family who adopted him — and who loves him. He was the fourth child she and her former husband brought into their family through international adoption, bringing them here for a better life in Canada.

She alone has fought for him, taken his side and attempted to provide the safety, kindness and love his life has lacked. This is his ticket out of the darkness.

But in a country that prides itself for making universal access to health care a basic human right, she's been fighting the government as much as the boy's illnesses — and in launching a $10-million lawsuit against the province, she's fighting for other people's children as well. Social service agencies passed the buck when she's tried to get help, forcing her to him assessed and re-assessed and assessed yet again — 23 times, in fact.
It's almost as if they just wanted her to go away.

The boy may be broken, but he's not irreparable. Intensive residential treatment costing upwards of $1,000 a day for several years can draw him out of the dark world he inhabits. If he doesn't get this help now, it's very likely the criminal justice system will be meeting him in the not-too-distant future.

If this were simply a dollars-and-cents issue (which it isn't), it would be more expensive, at more than $100,000 a year, to keep him locked up over the long term than pay to treat him now.

So, what is Ontario's solution?

The province is more than happy to pay for his treatment — as long as Desmarais gives up custody and hands him over to the state.

This is the best we can do in our "just" society? Tear the boy away from the only family he's ever known?

But here's the rub. If this were an isolated case, it might be dismissed as an aberration. The thing is, it isn't.

In 2005, Ontario Ombudsman André Marin's first-ever report found dozens and dozens of Ontario families forced to make the same awful choice: abandon a loved one or get help.

He wasn't the first ombudsman to address the issue either. Clare Lewis did it in 2001.

Judy Finlay, Ontario's Child Advocate from 1991 to 2007, did the same thing in 2000.

Nearly 15 years have passed since and nothing has changed.

How can we as a society be forcing parents into such a cruel dilemma? It's heartless. It goes against everything for which our universal health-care system stands.

And, as Marin pointed out nine years ago, it's unnecessary. No drastic measures are needed. New money is not even required.

For children with special needs already in the care of Children's Aid Societies, the money simply needs to be moved from one budget to another. For those requiring residential treatment (like Desmarais' son) the province simply needs to take responsibility, because it will spend the money — but only if a parent declares their child abandoned.

We ask you, is this the treatment our friends and neighbours deserve?

The answer seems pretty simple to us.


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