NB Telegraph-Journal | Provincial News
As published on page A1/A2 on October 15, 2005
Province jails innocent autistic boy
Government's decision sickens autism advocate
The provincial government is temporarily housing a severely autistic 13-year-old New Brunswick boy on the grounds of the Miramichi youth jail, a decision that is drawing fire from the province's Autism Society.
"Personally, when I saw the information initially, I was sick to my stomach," Harold Doherty, spokesperson for the New Brunswick Autism Society, said Friday. "That's my gut reaction."
The boy, who cannot be named by law because he is under the care of the Minister of Family and Community Services, is severely autistic and requires highly specialized care.
A department official confirmed Friday the province placed the boy in a small cottage on the grounds of the youth jail in Miramichi in mid-September and contracted a private company to provide care for him 24 hours per day.
Department spokesperson Robert Duguay said the boy does not have any contact with the youth housed at the jail nor the guards who work there. He said the province will keep him there until a space opens up for him at a specialized care facility for autistic children in Maine, they hope at the end of October.
Mr. Duguay said the province tried to make other arrangements, including placing him in a special care home, but those did not meet his needs and placing the boy on the grounds of the youth facility was the best option.
"It's not an environment with bars and jail," Mr. Duguay said. "It's nothing of that nature. It's a facility that was appropriate for that high complex needs level. It was appropriate for the safety of the client. It's a safe environment for him. It's a safe environment for the caregivers too. It's just temporary."
But Mr. Doherty said the boy should not be housed on the grounds of the jail even if he is in a separate cottage. He worries the boy may come in contact with offenders held there and said it's just not an appropriate place for this child.
"Obviously they (the province) wouldn't lie and say he's in a cell if he's not in a cell but he's still in prison there. That's the reality," Mr. Doherty said.
He said in this particular case, the province could have rented a small house in a quiet area and asked the private company to care for him there.
He said province needs proper residential facilities for autistic children because there are many children who are severely autistic and in need of care. About 1,200 New Brunswickers have some form of autism.
"To me, (this case is) a pretty clear indictment of the fact that we don't have proper facilities for autistic children with that severity of autism. If all we can do is imprison those children, we have failed them. That's the obvious reality," he said.
Mr. Doherty, who has a profoundly autistic nine-year-old boy, said the situation made him worry about what could happen to his own son.
"If I pass way in an automobile accident tomorrow and he is turned over to the state, is imprisonment in his future? These are real concerns that we live with on a regular basis," he said.
Mr. Duguay said the province couldn't build a residential facility for just one case.
"Are you saying we should build a centre in New Brunswick when we have one in Maine because of one exceptional case?" Mr. Duguay said. "Are we building a centre for one case when we got calls yesterday from people asking for money for shelters all around the province?"
Mr. Duguay said the boy's parents gave custody of the boy to the province because they couldn't care for him anymore. Citing confidentiality, he wouldn't provide any more details about when that happened or whether the parents approved the boy's transfer to the grounds of the youth jail.
He said the province placed the boy at a special care home but that didn't work out.
"He needed to be isolated without having people living near because he would have been disruptive. It's a very exceptional case... It's an exceptional situation that needed an exceptional solution and it is temporary," he said. "We feel that this is okay, that this is all appropriate. It's all well looked after and we are not sure what the concerns are all about."
When pressed about why the province chose a cottage at the youth jail over other options, Mr. Duguay said: "We had two days to make a decision. This was available."
Mr. Duguay initially said the cost was confidential but later put the cost at $700 per day for staffing and food. Two people care for the boy at all times.
"We can't take an individual like that and put him in a closet and close the door and lock the key. We have to look after the person... Personally at the department, we don't care how much. We have to do it and we try to find the best in a reasonable way."
Mr. Doherty said the placement of the boy at this location is inappropriate.
"You can dress it up anyway you want, it's still a prison. What it represents is a total failure to provide any decent residential care for a severely autistic person in New Brunswick," he said. "In the best case scenario, they are going to send him to Maine. They are going to export him. To me that's a total failure."
He said the autism society has long lobbied for residential care facilities in the province for severely autistic individuals. He said he plans to write several cabinet ministers, including Family and Community Services Minister Tony Huntjens, about the situation.
Liberal public safety critic John Foran said Friday the boy may be living in a cottage but he's still being housed at the youth facility compound.
"I don't believe that somebody should be held there who is not there through a court," Mr. Foran said. "He hasn't been sentenced there by a court... He hasn't committed any crimes."
He said the government should have rented a cottage or home elsewhere to house the boy.
Mr. Doherty said the autism society was upset when the province placed a young autistic man, Waleed Arif, in Centracareseveral years ago and this new case raises even more concerns.
"It's gone from bad to worse as far as we are concerned.