Friday 24 July 2015

A Tragic Death, A Cautionary Tale and Lessons About Protecting Our Loved Ones

Guy Mitchell.  Guy Mitchell.  Guy Mitchell.  I can't get that name out of my head.  And when I think of Guy, I am afraid for my son, my mother and my future self.  I am afraid for everyone who is at risk of being vulnerable and 'cared for' by the state, behind closed doors.

Guy Mitchell had developmental disabilities and was 38 when he died in 2012.  He drowned in an outdoor cistern of freezing cold water outside his group home in Ancaster, Ontario, as he was trying to retrieve drinking water.  A representative of Hamilton Police said officers reported that the conditions at the Ancaster home were some of the worst they had ever seen. There were signs of neglect everywhere, and they included no heat, or running water; no food in the fridge, soiled clothes all over the floor as well as alcohol bottles and ashtrays everywhere.
Yet, the home received a passing grade from the care agency Choices just days before Guy died. A number of complaints about the home over the year up to his death produced no investigations, no police reports and no reports with the ministry of community and social services.
The story of the Ancaster group home is a sad, cautionary tale of total failure to protect Guy and his vulnerable roommates.  When Guy entered his Ancaster residence twenty-six years ago, Bill and Karen Santor apparently ran a well kept and caring home for their charges until they died and daughter Keri-Lynn Santor assumed her parents' responsibilities.  Now missing, Keri is apparently a heavy drinker with a police record whom another family member says may be paranoid schizophrenic.   An agency called 'Choices' received Ontario provincial funding to operate and oversee this and other group homes in the region.  Two days before Guy died, staff at Choices gave Guy's group home a passing grade.  Dr. Jack Stanborough,  the coroner in Guy Mitchell's case was not impressed by Choices and he said so during his inquest. 

"I think Choices and its conduct is shameful," he said angrily in the morning to a courtroom full of lawyers while the jury was absent. "To hide material and produce it halfway through the inquest is shameful.

"I don't understand the disrespect for Guy Mitchell, for his family, for society, for this process ... Am I upset? Darn right I'm upset."
The sad case of Guy Mitchell is terrible but it teaches us lessons about protecting our loved ones who are vulnerable, including seniors in residences where abuse might occur. Guy Mitchell lived in deplorable conditions and died because no one was really looking at his home environment: no one in the government ministry that funded his home, no one in his family, no one in his neighbourhood, no one in the agency that operated the home. No one saw and no one knew.  
If we want to protect vulnerable people from the isolation that can lead to exploitation, we need to create models of support that ensure caring and responsible eyes are on our loved ones and their care providers.  Agencies and governments will not love our loved ones and sometimes, tragically, they will not protect them.  Parents of children with disabilities and children of the vulnerable elderly need to visit often, ask questions, drop in, check the fridge, look at bank statements, inspect cupboards, examine medications and ask to see written records.  We need to look carefully at our loved ones and ask them questions.  If we can't be there in person, we need to assign oversight responsibilities to others and then keep in close touch.  One Vancouver-based friend had a father in Scotland whose health was failing.  It was a visiting osteopathic therapist and a neighbour who became my friend's eyes and ears.  My friend used the same online care coordination tool that we use in my family, Tyze Personal Networks, to watch over his Dad and keep him safe.  Read my friend's story in the Toronto Star HERE.  It's a much more hopeful and reassuring story than poor Guy Mitchell's.  
If those providing care to a vulnerable loved one won't share information or allow unscheduled visits, there is something very wrong.  We ALL have a role in being vigilant to protect our family members, neighbours, friends and colleagues receiving care. We need to advocate for support systems, businesses, governments and municipalities to make it easier, not harder, to befriend those who are isolated in our midst.  Lives depend on it. 
Post-script:  Every member of our son's staff shares information and updates with us on a daily basis.  Drop-in visits and phone calls are encouraged and regular planning meetings include family.  My Mom's paid helpers have become friends and share information with me and my sister on a daily basis.  I can't say that accidents will never happen to my son and my Mom, but I know that everyone who cares for and about them talks to each other in a coordinated circle of care. And if something bad happens, it will be an accident despite best efforts to provide excellent care.

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