NEWS
06/27/2011 03:02 EDT | Updated 08/27/2011 05:12 EDT

Down Syndrome Girl Left Alone With Dead Mother In B.C. A Case Of Neglect: Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond

CP

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- VANCOUVER - A teenaged girl with Down syndrome who spent a week alone with her mother's decomposing body was neglected by government agencies and social workers, says British Columbia's children's watchdog.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond released a report Monday that called for changes to the way the province handles children with special needs, suggesting better planning and co-ordination could have saved an already vulnerable child from the emotional turmoil of witnessing her mother waste away.

The 15-year-old girl's mother died last September in their mobile home in the Fraser Valley, east of Vancouver.

When neighbours found the girl about a week later, she was filthy, emaciated and apparently unaware that her mother had died, having attempted to feed her uncooked macaroni and medication.

"It is heartbreaking to envision her torment as she tried to understand what was occurring and as she, in vain, tried to wake up her dead mother," Turpel-Lafond told reporters in Vancouver after releasing her report.

"Her significant needs were neglected by many people for weeks and months before her mother's death. The system of services and supports that were supposed to help her thrive was passive, and the result was long-term neglect."

The girl is now in foster care.

She was born with Down syndrome and a number of other medical and developmental conditions, including a hearing impairment. When she was found, her hearing aids were not working, leaving her effectively deaf.

Her mother already had two teenage boys with a previous husband. The girl's father eventually left the country, providing little financial support and eventually killing himself in the United States.

Turpel-Lafond's report details the family's spiral into poverty, as the mother's health and finances deteriorated. The mother was an alcoholic, and she and her daughter became dependent on social assistance and food banks to survive.

In April 2010, a car accident left the woman, who was in her late 50s, without a car and unable to work. It also further isolated her and her daughter, making it more difficult to leave the mobile home park where they lived, particularly for much-needed medical visits.

All the while, the family was in regular contact with social workers from several government agencies and ministries, each with separate areas of responsibility including children with special needs, community housing and income assistance.

Between 2006 and the mother's death in September 2010, the children's ministry received four child protection reports — complaints that a child may be facing abuse or neglect. Ministry staff visited the home and investigated each complaint, but concluded no action was needed.

None of the departments that had contact with the girl came up with a detailed plan for her care, said Turpel-Lafond, nor did they communicate with each other to co-ordinate their response.

In fact, when the mother's income assistance was cut off last summer because she failed to file the required paperwork, no one at the Ministry of Social Development informed the Ministry of Children and Family Development that the girl was now living in a home with no income.

"They (income assistance payments) were cancelled without planning for the dependant daughter with special needs," said Turpel-Lafond, who described the scenario as "shocking."

"It is one example of the many times the mother's difficulty obscured a much-needed focus on the child, and how invisible this child's needs were to the systems in place in British Columbia."

Turpel-Lafond made several recommendations, including:

— The ministries of children and family development, education and health should develop a detailed strategy for children with special needs.

— The province should review plans for all children and youth transferred to the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

— New guidelines should ensure investigations following child protection reports are more detailed.

— The Ministry of Social Development and the Ministry of Children and Family Development should jointly review all decisions that would see income assistance cut off to parents of special needs children.

The minister of children and family development, Mary McNeil, said her government accepts all Turpel-Lafond's recommendations.

While Turpel-Lafond has complained her previous recommendations on children with special needs have gone unfulfilled, McNeil promised that won't happen this time.

"What's different this time is I'm a new minister," said McNeil. "I'm working closely with the representative, I'm just as concerned as she is."

McNeil suggested there are adequate resources in place for children with special needs, but the problem appears to be with how they're implemented.

"What happened in this case was a lack of collaboration and a lack of communication, and that's got to be addressed," said McNeil.

Claire Trevena, the children's critic for the Opposition NDP, said the report reveals serious problems inside the ministry that handles children at risk.

"I think it's an indictment of the system that's there for children with special needs," said Trevena.

"It's a very honest report of the mismanagement that's been there over the last several years.

"Let's hope this report stimulates people to look and find out that there are no other people like this young child."