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February 23, 2011 permalink
Rosie DiManno steps away from the best interest of the child platitude to show what happens to a real foster child. Foster care is a system in which the people who have day-to-day care of a child have no authority, while people who do have legal authority have almost no contact with the child. In Rosie's story notice how these two kinds of people meet destructively to ruin a child. Two earlier articles on Youthdale: 2009 2010.
‘I am praying to God for me to come back’
“Every morning, do you go downstairs to see if I’m there?”
“No, I know you’re not there.”
“What if I’m going . . . I’m going to run away from here?”
— Oct. 3, 2010, telephone conversation between 11-year-old “Daniel” and the woman he calls “Mom”
Daniel was seized at birth from his drug-addicted schizophrenic mother.
Last May 4, in a terribly disruptive repetition, he was seized from the foster family that has spent the past four years trying to adopt him.
Rebecca and David — a middle-aged observant Jewish couple — have not been permitted to see or speak with Daniel since October, despite glowing assessment reports by Jewish Family and Child Services, which has ward guardianship of the boy.
Daniel has lived for the past five months at the Youthdale Treatment Centre on Victoria St., a facility for children with mental disorders, occasionally restrained to manage his raging outbursts. He does not want to be there.
“I can’t live any longer like this,” Daniel told Rebecca in their last phone call, on Oct. 8, a conversation she tape-recorded. “And pretty soon I’m going to explode. I can’t take it. In two weeks I’m going to freak out so bad and I won’t be able to control myself and I’ll explode.”
It is a sad and maddening story between warring factions, all claiming to have Daniel’s best interests at heart. Yet while adults — lawyers, custodians, case workers, psychiatrists — hiss at each other in a quasi-judicial procedure that has grown increasingly toxic and unnecessarily prolonged, a little boy remains institutionally warehoused, crying himself to sleep at night.
“I am praying to God for me to come back,” Daniel wrote to his foster parents at one point. “Do whatever you can to get me back. Do not get another boy.”
No one has accused Rebecca and David of doing harm to Daniel. (All names are pseudonyms to protect their identity, as mandated by law.) Indeed, the child’s only periods of stability and calm came while in their patient, tender care. A youngster who would not even allow anyone to touch him had progressed to the point where he’d crawl onto Rebecca’s lap and nestle.
“He was absolutely a wild child when he came to us,” recalls Rebecca. “He had a youth worker with him at all times — what they call a shadow — to help control his behaviour.”
David: “He’d been bounced around for so long. No way this kid should be bounced around even more.”
The genesis of the conflict between this couple and the JFCS is difficult to comprehend. This narrative is their story and therefore one-sided because the agency says it can’t discuss the case.
Emails and letters provided to the Star make it clear the foster parents were stubborn advocates for Daniel. They clashed with the agency, most critically over the boy’s psychiatric diagnosis and which programs would allow him to best thrive.
The foster parents argued Daniel did best in public schools — which he attended for two years while living with them — in programs tailored to his needs, accessing the breadth of resources available from the Toronto District School Board, yet among his peers. The agency favoured institutionally-run behaviour modification programs which, the couple says, are inappropriate and counterproductive for a child with Daniel’s issues.
A pediatrician and, according to the foster parents, the agency’s own psychiatrist had determined that Daniel suffered from Asperger Syndrome, a neurobiological disorder in the “autism spectrum” that refers to a range of developmental disabilities, with symptoms of varying severity. Earlier diagnoses had pegged Daniel with attention deficit disorder and separation anxiety disorder. There was also speculation that he was bipolar.
He was originally put on Adderall, a psychostimulant. But as the foster parents later learned from Daniel’s cardiologist, that medication should not be prescribed to children who, like Daniel, had serious heart problems in infancy. Daniel underwent surgery for a defective aortic valve at 11 months. Sighs Rebecca: “He was born with a broken heart and has had to live with his heart being broken ever since.”
Fumes David: “Those drugs could have killed him.”
So there were pre-existing issues of contention between the foster parents and the agency. But the situation became hostile when the couple was summoned to mediation and conflict resolution sessions with the society. On their lawyer’s instructions, they refused to attend — at first.
“They wouldn’t even tell us what we were supposed to be mediating about,” David snorts. “We smelled a set-up.”
But, allegedly threatened with losing Daniel forever — indeed, never seeing him again — and being struck off the agency’s foster parent list as well, the couple acquiesced. Made no difference, as it turned out, because last spring Daniel was removed from their home and last fall, “they dumped us as foster parents,” says Rebecca. “They delivered the notice to our door, like a pizza flyer.”
That was one day after the couple declined an agency request to drop the complaint they’d filed with the Ontario Child and Family Services Review Board over Daniel’s seizure. The board ordered a hearing and the case has been moving sluggishly through the tribunal process, with a couple of hearing days — in camera — scheduled from month to month.
David owns a midtown business. He estimates the couple has already spent about $50,000 on legal bills.
Richard Cummings, executive director of the JFCS, told the Star the law forbids him from discussing any specific case.
“All I can say is that our efforts are always in the best interests of children. Those are the imperatives and values of our agency. And we are an eminently defensible agency.”
Generally speaking, Cummings emphasizes that the agency monitors relationships within all fostering families and maintains vigilance over the needs of the child. “Those needs may change from time to time. Our idea of the child’s best interests might not align sometimes with the opinion of others. But ultimately, our responsibility is to the child.
“Absolutely, a plan for permanency and continuity in the child’s life is the desired goal. But child welfare is an imperfect field. There’s no lack of complexity in cases that come within our reach.”
Back to the beginning, where Daniel’s tale of woe began, long before the afternoon in 2006 that his uncle dropped him off at the foster couple’s apartment, telling the boy flatly: “These are your new parents.”
Daniel’s biological father was unknown when he came wailing into the world in Toronto. Child welfare authorities turned the newborn over to his maternal grandparents, who formally adopted the baby. When Daniel was 5, however, his grandmother died suddenly. Three months later, grandpa moved out of the country with his new girlfriend, the foster parents say they were told. Daniel was farmed out to an uncle and aunt. But they were overwhelmed by the child’s needs, his temper tantrums, his bewildering emotional disorders and the high maintenance required. So they told the agency they were giving him back to JFCS.
Meanwhile, Rebecca and David had applied as foster parents with the agency.
“We met (Daniel) two days before his 7th birthday,” says Rebecca. “He was holding back tears.”
From those earliest days, and despite the clear challenge that it would be to raise Daniel, the couple had always planned to adopt him. The agency knew that and seemed approving, they say. “We were instructed to tell him this was his forever home,” says Rebecca.
Daniel sized up his new guardians and stated, according to Rebecca: “I’m a kid who needs parents and you’re parents who need a kid.”
With no direction on how to handle such a difficult child, the couple learned by trial and error. It quickly became apparent that there could be no reasoning with Daniel. They didn’t yet know Daniel had Asperger, but he didn’t respond to methods that might work with other troubled youngsters. The most effective tactic, when Daniel was at his furious worst, was to walk away, not engage, the couple discovered. The towering rages would eventually subside and Daniel would revert to “normal,” or what passed for normal with him.
As Rebecca tried to explain to a caseworker in one from among dozens of email exchanges, on this occasion objecting to a behaviour modification regime that had been proposed: “He becomes angry and frustrated in a heartbeat when he doesn’t understand what he is supposed to do. Once angry, it takes time for him to calm down. Often he does not understand what he is told even when it seems to a non A-S person to be so simple. The adult then moves forward assuming he can follow and when he can’t he acts out again.”
A breakthrough came when the family took a cottage vacation and Daniel’s prescriptions could not be immediately renewed by a local pharmacist. Suddenly, in the absence of those medications, Daniel’s conduct settled down. One day, he clambered into Rebecca’s lap. “He cuddled. That was the turning point.”
When Rebecca reported these developments to Daniel’s psychologist, suggesting perhaps the drugs had been aggravating the boy’s problems and asking whether she might cease administering them, the doctor purportedly responded: “Sounds like a no-brainer to me.”
In 2006, Daniel was accepted into a behaviour modification program at CAMH, a learning environment for kids unable to function in a normal classroom. He attended for five months as a day patient.
The following year, he was placed into day treatment at Hincks-Dellcrest Treatment Centre, a children’s mental-health facility.
“The teacher there told us, this kid has Asperger,” David recalls. “She said, ‘we’re not qualified to teach him and the other kids are torturing him.’ And Daniel hated it. He begged us: ‘Don’t make me go there!’ He was afraid of that place.”
The couple wanted Daniel in a regular classroom where he wouldn’t — as was his tendency — mimic the behavioural antics of emotionally disturbed classmates. “It is an obvious mistake to put him with kids who have abnormal behaviour issues,” Rebecca protested.
In another email: “Hincks was unable to provide the proper supports and thus (Daniel) was . . . moved to a (younger age) classroom where he has no opportunity to interact with his peers.”
He was, when adequately controlled, a bright, inquisitive and outgoing child with natural leadership skills, say the foster parents. What they were desperately seeking was a public school environment — as Daniel wanted — with an academic and socializing program tapered to the boy’s specific needs. It took a long time to coordinate this objective with the TDSB but, as of a year ago, it had been managed.
“He was doing well, better,” says David.
Last spring, a crisis occurred. Daniel, who’d continued irregular contact with his biological cousins, learned that his grandfather had returned to Toronto. The boy took it into his head that he would be reunited with this man; that they’d be a family again. When his grandfather didn’t even call, say the foster parents, Daniel became profoundly distressed.
A particularly bad episode prompted Rebecca and David, at their wits end, to call the agency, requesting some kind of expert assistance. A caseworker did come over and swept the boy to the hospital ER ward. There, a staff psychiatrist concluded there was no need for a fresh assessment, as the caseworker urged, or in-patient treatment. They sent him home.
In early May, the same caseworker reappeared, saying she needed to remove Daniel for assessment.
“But she told us to pack his clothes,” says David. “I realized this was a backdoor apprehension.”
As he was leaving, a suspicious Daniel asked the caseworker, according to the foster parents: “You’re not putting me in a group home, are you?”
In fact, that’s precisely what happened. Daniel was parked briefly with another foster family — “respite”, this intervention was called — and then moved to a group home.
Rebecca and David told the agency on Aug. 9 they were still intent on adopting Daniel. “This was greeted with resounding silence,” says David.
That month, Daniel attended a camp serving children and teens with complex multiple neurological disorders including Asperger and Tourette's syndrome. He’d long been on the waiting list. Yet, the foster parents say, this aggrieved his JFCS caseworker, who complained she’d not been forewarned. This summer idyll was followed by a second recreational excursion at a Youthdale-operated camp.
The director of the first camp wrote: “In my professional opinion, as a special-education teacher, cognitive behavioural therapist, and a camp director of 24 years, it would be disastrous for (Daniel) to attend Youthdale Camp. The children he would encounter would have issues unlike his own and he could be physically, emotionally and sexually vulnerable in such an environment.”
At the end of those two weeks, Daniel was moved into the Youthdale residential centre. Rebecca and David were permitted one-hour supervised visits. But those were halted, they say, after a caseworker claimed Daniel told someone his foster parents had instructed him not to cooperate with Youthdale staff. They deny this.
A short while later they were dropped as foster parents.
On Oct. 18, phone calls to Daniel were cut off. A week later, they claim, the agency threatened to shut down their foster home unless they dropped their Review Board hearing. With an hour, the formal notice arrived.
Daniel’s grandfather, who sees the boy occasionally, supports the foster parents’ adoption ambitions, they claim. In a February email to them, he wrote: “(Daniel) has suffered much trauma in his life and removing him from your custody would have the most traumatic experience on him mentally that I feel could not be reasonably resolved. You have worked wonders with him and for the first time in his life he feels ‘part of a family’.”
Rebecca and David are terrified what might become of Daniel if he remains at Youthdale for much longer. By law, he can be kept there against his will until age 16. “What impact will that have on his future?” Rebecca wonders. “What drugs is he on? I’m afraid he’ll grow up into a psychopath from all that anger, never experiencing love. He could end up institutionalized for life.”
Someone they know, who’s recently seen Daniel, reports the boy is bewildered and regressing.
“Not a day goes by when I’m not in tears,” says Rebecca. “We promised we’d never leave him, that he’d always be with us.
“We are a family. We won’t abandon him.”
Source: Toronto Star