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Boy on Beach

Summer 2006

Chopping support at 19 makes no sense
Mr. Wilcocks

VICTORIA - Everybody knew something bad could happen if Neil Fahlman was cut loose with no support when he turned 19. Even the government’s psychologist warned things could go really wrong. “Without the supports now in place Neil would be extremely vulnerable to his own aggressiveness and impulsivity,” the psychologist found. “He could do significant harm to himself and the community.”

But rules are rules and budgets are budgets. Community Living BC, which delivers services to people with mental disabilities, has a rule that it inherited from government. It is not enough to need help. If your IQ is 70 or above, support stops at 19. You are on your own. Neil tested at 79, low enough to place him in the bottom 10 per cent of the population. But high enough, according to the policy, that Neil no longer needed help.

This is where the story could have gone very wrong and those warnings of “significant harm” come true. But Neil’s mother wouldn’t accept the decision. She took the case to B.C. Supreme Court and this month won a victory for Neil and thousands of others.

Fiona Gow adopted Neil when he was five weeks old. When he was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, attention deficit disorder and other problems, she sought help. By the time he turned 15, Neil was a big, volatile kid - he’s now over 300 pounds. Gow and her husband couldn’t cope. Foster care didn’t work, for similar reasons. Community Living BC helped with a solution. With the help of one-on-one support seven hours a day, Neil started living successfully by himself in a small cabin in a quiet Vancouver Island community. (He qualified for social assistance disability benefits.)

Then his 19th birthday approached. And despite the fact that Community Living BC had approved the support for Neil, and despite the warning from its psychologist, the agency said it was cutting off support, citing the IQ policy.
Leave aside the legal issue for the moment. This is a person with serious behavioural problems, possibly living in your neighbourhood, who has been identified as a danger to himself and others. Is it really sensible to cut off support when he turns 19?

The court did look at the legal issues. Mr. Justice Eric Chamberlist found the legislation establishing Community Living BC said it was to "promote equitable access to community living support" and to "assist adults with developmental disabilities to achieve maximum independence and live full lives in their communities." Denying people needed support because of an IQ test score is contrary to the purposes established by the legislation, the court ruled. If the government wants to cut costs by using arbitrary tests, it needs to amend the legislation or pass a cabinet order.

Community Living BC is trying to figure out whether to appeal. The issue is really money. The IQ standard was a way to restrict the number of people eligible for help, dumping some who needed it. Fahlman's support - seven hours a day, every day - costs about $1,500 a week.

If Community Living BC has to honour its obligations to people like Fahlman - and there are many of them - it will have to cut somewhere else. Unless the government recognizes that it is wrong and foolish to abandon people like Fahlman. Impulsive, easily led, unable to consider consequences they can easily be preyed on, or become offenders. Whatever happens, things tend to turn out badly. It's important that government worries about costs. But it's ridiculous to say that someone who needs seven hours a day of support, for his own well-being and the protection of the community, is suddenly fine to make his own way in life because he turns 19. We are just throwing those people away, to land in their parents' basements, in jail or on the streets.

The court ruling could mean an end to that waste. All government has to do is accept it. Footnote: It is not good to turn 19 in B.C. if you have problems. Children in care are also generally abandoned by the system on their birthday, sent packing from their last foster home, often with few skills, emotional issues and no money. It is cruel, and a formula for disaster.

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