NOTE: We have split our UN report on Human Rights for Autistics in Ontario into sections and are blogging them. This is the section on Housing/Group Homes.
Housing – abuse in group (“residential”) homes
Group or residential homes in Ontario are a vestige of institutional life. The ideal of independent living for IDD and autistic individuals, beyond residential homes, has not been fully realized in our province. And the situation in some Ontario group homes is desperate and terrifying.
Between 90 and 120 children and youth connected to Children’s Aid die every year in Ontario, many living in group home (“residential”) settings. An investigation by the Toronto Star showed that physical restraint is common in Toronto group homes and youth residences. We have also heard from case workers about human trafficking in Toronto homes, where vulnerable youth are targeted. Sexual and other physical abuse by staff is not effectively prevented nor dealt with uniformly, as there is almost no regulation or accountability. As an Ontario government panel on residential services concluded in 2016:
“At this time, the Panel notes that there are no universal, or even common, set of indicators, standards or concepts that might lend themselves to the measurements of quality of care in residential services across sectors. Given the rich diversity of service providers, the applicability of universal indicators across sectors may be limited, although the Panel believes that some foundational indicators can be articulated.” (emphasis added.)
In 2015, when 17 year old Justin Sanguiliano died after being restrained in a group home, Child Protection authorities concluded that neither criminal charges nor an inquest were warranted. “It is stunning to me how these children… are rendered invisible while they are alive and invisible in their death,” said Irwin Elman, Ontario’s independent advocate for children and youth. Elman was unaware of Justin’s death until informed by the Star.
Elman authored an excellent report by the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth’s office on youth in residential care. It covered many issues, including the arbitrary and unregulated use of restraint. The report noted: “Punishment seemed to be applied without explanation or any attempt to understand the reasons for the young person’s behaviour. We were told that in many cases staff never asked ‘why’ and just administered punishment.”
According to the Report: “The issue of the use of restraints and what the system calls ‘serious occurrences’ says more about the culture of a residential setting and the level of skill of staff than it does about the young people themselves.”
One former group home resident who went public shared his story about a staffer who “would try to pick fights. He knew that if these kids punched him, he would have the right to restrain them and he would use excessive force. He would bang their head up against the floor and they would be bleeding.” Bullying and restraint by staff was common in 3 of the 4 homes he was sent to in a year. “It was very scary,” he said. An autistic girl who also spoke to the Toronto Star told of being neglected and locked out of her group home. She is now struggling with PTSD.
As the Panel report suggested, solving the problems in our residential care system starts with clearer standards and regulations. Safer and more user-friendly reporting mechanisms would be incredibly beneficial as well. As one youth stated in the Provincial Advocate’s Report: “Who do you report to when you don’t know who to report to?” Children told the Advocate’s office that they were not made aware of their rights and did not have the information to self-advocate. “They were not just unaware of the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, but unaware of any individual who would be interested in speaking up for them or acting on their behalf.”
To live in Ontario residential care is to feel helpless, much of the time. For autistic residents, this can be amplified by a lack of access to appropriate means of communication and sensory accommodation. The punitive approach to autistic “behaviours” has remained a reality long after Ontario’s residential institutions closed. The needs of autistics in residential care has not been studied in any depth, nor have autistic group home residents been surveyed as a demographic to understand whether their communication and sensory needs are being met.
Service providers and social services policymakers must move towards an understanding of autistic realities in residential care, in order to develop trauma-informed care that works for all residents.