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Abuse in Muskoka Foster Care
February 16, 2011 permalink
The local Muskoka newspaper is running a series on children's aid. The first article today is on Gordie Merton, a recent graduate of foster care.
Those rallies last year did not wake up any politicians, but the small-town press has noticed, and is doing some real investigative reporting.
Teen says child welfare experience left him with nightmares
Families at Risk Series: This is the first installment in a three-part series looking at local children’s aid services.
- This week: Read about one man’s nightmare description of his provincial care.
- Next week: Facing violence and disruption, a local mom turns to children’s aid, which she credits with saving her kids and her life.
- On March 2: Looking at turmoil and change surrounding our children’s aid services.
MUSKOKA – Gordie Merton has nightmares.
When talking to Merton, 19, in his family’s comfortable and bright basement apartment in Gravenhurst, he seems well adjusted.
During the day he will watch televised parliamentary debates and energetically offer informed comment on each bill that comes to the floor. Then he goes to work at a nearby pizza place.
But ask him about the four years he spent as a Crown ward within the children’s aid society system, being jostled between foster care and group homes, and his expression changes.
And when talking in his soft voice about his final placement at a privately owned psychiatric treatment centre in southern Ontario, he will say, “That was worse than hell. I would have rather been in hell than that place.”
At age 12, Merton, who was diagnosed at a young age as developmentally delayed with attachment disorder and attention deficit disorder, had been in the care of his paternal grandmother.
When his mother tried to regain custody of her son, the court ruled that, because of a complex mental disorder, Merton would become a Crown ward, and he was placed under the guardianship of the government.
He started living in foster homes across northern Ontario, and Merton alleges he was mistreated to varying degrees in each of them. In one instance, he said he had a miniature statue of Buddha taken away because his foster parents practised Christianity. In another instance, he said his remarks about being sexually abused by a fellow student were seemingly disregarded both by his foster parents and by his children’s aid worker.
“I didn’t know who to go to, so I would act out in anger, so then they would listen to me. Unfortunately, they would listen to me too late,” he said.
In the Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka offices there are stacks of boxes containing hundreds of documents regarding Merton’s case. Interim executive director Marty Rutledge said the documents include incident reports, serious occurrence reports, case worker notes and medical and psychiatric records pertaining to Merton’s case.
“Gordie’s behaviour was not controllable in the community,” said Rutledge, stating Merton had a history of auditory and visual hallucinations and had threatened to hurt or kill himself on multiple occasions. “We had him placed in all levels of care — foster care, group care and institutional care.”
The psychiatric care centre Merton was sent to features individual rooms, psychiatrists on site and staff available 24 hours per day, among other services, said Rutledge.
“If you get (there), you’re a kid who has really got some serious difficulties that haven’t been able to be managed anywhere else,” said Rutledge.
By age 15 Merton was moved to the centre. While there, he alleges, he was restrained, over-medicated and physically abused.
Although he lodged several complaints, nothing seemed to improve, he said. Merton recounted a time when a staff member demanded he refold the clothes on a shelf in his room. As the teenager did so, the staff member would push the clothes off and make him start over.
Frustrated, Merton said he eventually tossed the clothes back in the staff member’s face. When he did, he alleges, the staff member hit him in the face, knocking him to the floor. The third time it happened, Merton took a swing at the staff member, he said. They were the only two people in the room.
The staff member then left and returned with other staff to restrain Merton to his bed for his violent outburst. But Merton said staff often improperly restrained him and at one point his forearm was cut open, creating a wound that would leave a permanent scar.
Rutledge said incident reports are filed each time a child is physically restrained and these are filed with the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which reviews them. The physical abuse Merton described above launched an independent child protection investigation into his case that involved the Ontario Provincial Police and the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.
“The police laid no criminal charges and the child protection agency concluded there were no child protection concerns,” said Rutledge.
An independent review of Merton’s files and treatment was then conducted by a southern Ontario children’s aid society and Merton and his mother filed complaints with the Residence Placement Advisory Committee.
Through his time with the society, Merton was depressed and suicidal. He was prescribed several drugs. In his final placement the psychologist increased his medication dosages, including that of lithium, a drug used mainly to treat mania and bipolar disorder.
“Picture you’re in a house, looking out the window, and everything is going slow,” said Merton. “Really slow. And all of it is grey. That’s what I was seeing when I was on the medication.”
He said he blames the medication for his hallucinations.
Merton was able to visit his family one weekend a month and during one summer night at home things came to a head. Frustrated with the medication and his treatment in care, he said he grabbed a kitchen knife while his family wasn’t looking and went outside to kill himself.
“When the police got there, something changed in me. When I looked at the officer, he was holding back tears, so I knew somebody was listening,” he said. “I threw down the knife.”
He was taken to Sudbury Algoma Hospital, a mental health facility, where a doctor determined Merton had three times the recommended amount of lithium in his system. The doctor recommended Merton be taken off the drug.
Rutledge said Merton’s medication had been under constant review and the Sudbury doctor’s medical opinion had differed from those at the psychiatric institution and the surrounding area, including a hospital physician who had suggested another increase in Merton’s lithium dose to control his hallucinations.
“We have a number of medical professionals who had seen Gordie up to this point,” said Rutledge referring to Merton being admitted to Sudbury Algoma Hospital. “He (the Sudbury doctor) was the first one to say ‘I don’t think this medication regime is appropriate.’”
Rutledge said the children’s aid society “tried to insist” the doctors consult each other, but it did not happen. According to the society, Merton’s medication regime was reviewed twice annually and mental health risk assessments were also administered.
Meanwhile, Merton’s mother had been working with the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth and a lawyer to bring her son home. They, along with Family, Youth and Child Services, developed a plan of care, which involved house visits from the society and counselling.
Merton was home by his 16th birthday.
“When they walked out of the house and didn’t come back, that was the happiest day of my life. I cried. It was a huge weight gone,” Merton said.
However, he said he has constant nightmares and things such as music can trigger negative feelings and thoughts related to his time in care.
Rutledge said the psychiatric institution lodged a formal complaint with the Ministry of Social and Community Services, which existed at the time, about Merton’s discharge “to say that we (Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka) were acting irresponsibly, that Gordie was a high-needs kid with high-level psychiatric needs and that he was being discharged from (the centre) against medical advice.”
Merton said he wants to use his experiences to help others. He attends rallies in Ottawa and Queen’s Park and said he is drafting a bill to submit to the legislature that would create transparency within children’s aid societies.
“If I fight now, maybe in the future this will never happen again,” he said. “I want them to realize what they’ve done and admit it.”
He said he would like to see a full disclosure of the complaints made by children in care.
For those who are not satisfied with the service received from a children’s aid agency, there are options. They can lodge a client concern or complaint with the agency, contact the Child and Family Services Review Board at 1-800-728-8823 or contact the Residential Placement Advisory Committee at 705-476-9790 or 1-877-535-2299.
They can also contact a lawyer, their area member of provincial parliament or the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth by visiting www.provincialadvocate.on.ca.
Source: Cottage Country Now
Addendum: Comments from an expert on Muskoka:
Page 1 and 10 is a good article about the disgraced Muskoka CAS. They fail to mention that three workers quit after what happened to Gordie and the director at the time Allan Hogan cried to Gordie and said sorry. All of the case notes on this file also just disappeared???? Family youth and Child Services of Muskoka is a disgrace to all the other CAS's in Ontario. They need to be shut down and be taken over by the government. This is just one of hundreds of horror stories that have come forward about the Muskoka CAS since the rallies last year and the public meeting in November. Their days are numbered.
Anyone else with an experience from this particular agency, good or bad is urged to contact us at 705-242-1567
— the citizens committee on public accountability
Source: private Facebook message dated February 16, 2011
And here is a comment from Gordie himself, from the same source:
It is a shame, however He will not get away with the lies nor will any other worker, administrator, CEO, or any one for that matter. They are people just like us and the law dose not exclude us from consequences of any acts, and the law will not exclude them. I am planning to change Canada for the good. I am going to change the corruption and make these people pay for every child that has died in their hands and every child that has been abused and neglected while under their care. These people think because they are protected by the government that they can get away with anything. We you know when they attempted to kill me by over medicating me. I came out strong. And you know I will fight for every child whose blood has been poured on the children’s aid societies hands. I do not think for one minute that just because they are called children’s Aid society does not mean they can get away with murder and abuse. I will succeed in bringing charges upon them for what they have done and for what is to come in the future. You know I cried last night, not tears of Shame nor tears of sadness but tears of happiness. Now my story is out for the world to see. And finally they will see I am not going any where I am going to fight.
Addendum: Here is a positive story on children's aid from the same reporter. The family is anonymous, so the story is not subject to verification.
Woman grateful to children’s aid
In 1991, the lives of one mother and her three sons changed forever.
Suzy, whose name has been changed to protect her family’s privacy, had a terrible marriage. She said her husband beat her, verbally abused her and cheated on her, and she felt there was nothing she could do about it.
“When my husband was abusing me, I wanted to leave but I didn’t have the courage to. I felt like I was a prisoner and I was scared to leave in case he was going to kill me or come after me and the kids,” said Suzy as tears rolled down her face.
“I worked … but he drained my bank account. I had three kids and lived in a shack. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
The petite, middle-aged woman said the physical abuse varied from her husband forcing himself on her, to threatening her with a knife, and everything in-between.
Traumatized by their home life, her sons began acting out in their Huntsville-area school, said Suzy, to the point where a worker, from what is now referred to as Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka, was called to the school to talk with her.
Anxious, as most parents are when they are approached by a children’s aid society, Suzy said her experience with the organization was positive from the beginning.
The person that met her at the school became her front-line worker, Suzy’s direct link to community-based programming. She said the worker introduced her and her children to a youth counsellor in Huntsville and was able to connect Suzy with the financial and emotional support she needed to leave her abuser.
Suzy’s front-line worker said she got involved when the abuse Suzy was suffering became evident.
“To start with, it was her abusive situation,” she said. “We were there to ensure the safety of her and her children and then we were there to help her with parenting and support.”
In 1991, Suzy divorced her husband.
“My marriage was falling apart and (my front-line worker) was there to help me through it. She supported me — I could have been dead, beaten — and she helped me through that. I’m here today and I believe a lot of it is because the children’s aid society and especially (my front-line worker) were there for me.”
But the cruel, emotional games Suzy’s ex-husband continued to play with his children destroyed their ability to trust people and threw them into behavioural problems that would continue to plague the family for years.
“I had kicked him out and after that he was never in contact with his kids, just when it was convenient for him. He would make a promise to the boys that he would come and see them but never show up. Or he would drop in for maybe five minutes just to let them know he was still alive, then disappear out of their lives for a few years.”
She said the children continued to act out at school, becoming bullies and getting into fights, actions that often resulted in suspension. Suzy said many schoolteachers and staff judged her.
“I felt uncomfortable going to the public school by myself. There were days I felt like I was being ganged up on because I had difficulty with my children. I felt like the finger was being pointed at me,” she said.
She asked her worker to come with her to meetings at the school. The worker did and that support helped her emotionally, she said.
“They were there every time I needed them.”
The society helped Suzy obtain an affordable three-bedroom apartment, which they lived in for over 10 years, and it also helped provide gift cards and food vouchers and helped send the boys to summer camps, among other things.
The boys received support at home from an intensive service worker. These workers generally work very closely with a family for a short period of time. With Suzy’s family, the worker started by coming every second day to talk with the boys about issues at school and help them build stability through routines and boundaries, such as finishing homework before going to play.
And Suzy said the boys needed that other voice to listen to, and she needed it for parenting support. She recalled a time when she told one of her sons to finish a chore at home, but instead he tore out of the house and went to meet a friend. Suzy said she followed him and, when he confronted her, she told him that he could go — but he would have to explain why his mother was hanging out with him.
Stories like this punctuated the family’s life for about a decade, but Suzy is adamant that Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka enabled the four to get over their hurdles and move on with their lives.
“They made me a stronger mom.”
By the time her youngest was 14, the family was able to move away from the society, though Suzy said she stays in contact with her front-line worker, whom she has come to trust as a friend.
“(Suzy) is a very strong parent. She has been very strong and she is very connected to her children and family. And she went through a lot,” said the worker.
And her family has become stronger. All three of her sons are getting closer to stable lives, which she said include committed relationships, jobs and children. She said one of her sons has asked her to move in with him and his wife.
“So much good came from it,” said Suzy of the society. “It bothers me because there are parents out there who need the support and they’re not getting it. I don’t believe it’s because children’s aid societies are not doing their part. I believe it’s because people just hear their children are going to be involved with the children’s aid society and it isn’t good. Well, they are good, and I am proof that it works.”
JP Arsenault, intake department manager of services for Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka, said domestic abuse is a widespread issue that all children’s aid agencies are required to investigate when they receive calls related to child welfare.
He also said the intake department is responsible for receiving calls and assessing the well-being of children. He said there is a myth that the societies primarily judge parents and apprehend children. That is often not the case.
“We don’t want to remove children unnecessarily from homes — that’s not our job. Only in those extreme cases where they can’t be protected in their families of origin do we have to intervene, and intervention doesn’t necessarily mean apprehension.”
Many of the society’s workers say they feel their roles are misunderstood by much of the public.
“There are a lot of myths, conceptions out there of what we actually do, so when we show up at the door, quite frankly, nobody is happy to see us,” said one worker, who noted that one of the biggest challenges she and her co-workers face is convincing families that they are there to help.
There are dramatic cases of abuse within children’s aid societies reported by the media, and workers say they worry these negative stories will prevent the people who need the society’s help from seeking it.
According to Marty Rutledge, interim executive director for Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka, the society provides services to approximately 2,000 families annually through its child welfare, children’s mental health and youth justice programs.
For more information call Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka at 705-645-4426 or visit www.fycsm.ca.
Source: Cottage Country Now