19-year old Miles Kirsh, who is severely autistic and mostly non-verbal, could become homeless and be placed in a shelter as of October 1. His plight is a nightmare scenario that many families like mine who care for a child with disabilities dread.
Since September 5, Kirsh has been living in a group home for individuals with developmental disabilities near Barrie, Ontario. His parents, who have separated, said they have “spent more than $750,000 on support, education, intervention, treatment and have been across North America to see many experts in the field” and had sold the family house in August. As they say in the Toronto Star, they can no longer care for Miles, who has self-injurious and aggressive behaviors including trying to grab the steering wheel while being driven in a car.
Emergency funding is covering his $400/day placement in the group home but is due to run out by the end of the month. Miles’s mother, Donna Kirsh, said that the family had been “assured Miles would not become homeless after the family home sold.” But a provincial bureaucrat had suggested that they drop Miles off at a shelter. Indeed, last year a 19-year-old with disabilities “nearly ended up in a municipal homeless shelter because a permanent placement couldn’t be found for him.”
Usually, government funding has been found for those in Miles’s situation but such has not been the case under Ontario’s deficit reduction plan, says the Toronto Star.
A shelter would be a completely inappropriate placement for Miles. Based on the Toronto Star‘s account, the Canadian teenager has many similarities with my teenage autistic son Charlie. A shelter would certainly not be equipped to care for his complex needs; for my son, these can include self-injurious behavior, extended periods (days, weeks, longer) of insomnia and huge struggles to communicate (if you only had about twenty words at your disposal, you might be frustrated too if you can’t say something as basic as “could you open a window? It’s too warm for me”).
According to the Toronto Star, Ontario officials say that the province has, since 2003, spent an “additional $500 million on developmental services and has increased residential care spaces by 3,000 to 18,000.” It has added “additional $25 million for residential services for people in urgent need.” But directors of agencies that operate group homes in Canada counter that finding housing for individuals with developmental disabilities is a province-wide problem that has been getting worse and might only decline further until some tragedy occurs. Already, some individuals end up in hospitals and prisons as waiting lists for residential care grow and grow, says Keith Tansley at Community Living Mississauga, which oversees the care of some 1,700 adults and children with disabilities.
Disability issues routinely get short shrift. In the US this week, both President Barack Obama and GOP contender Mitt Romney are skipping a “one-of-a-kind forum” on disability issues including the role of Medicare in ensuring independence and community living for individuals with disabilities.
Of course, we parents of children with disabilities love our kids more than any words can say. Caring for autistic teenagers like Miles and Charlie require resources that are financial, physical and emotional. The Kirshes’ predicament is dire but, as I know from living in the same world of caring for a child with intense needs, it is not at all unheard of for individuals with disabilities to end up in facilities ill-equipped to care for them.
Just recently, the US federal government has threatened legal action against the state of Florida for sending hundreds of children (some babies) with disabilities to nursing homes. Individuals like Miles Kirsh and my own son Charlie have very complicated needs and can thrive with the right support. It’s up to us to push our governments and politicians to create and maintain these and remember that how we care for those who are the most vulnerable says a lot about what kind of society we are.
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