When Joshua was two years old, his mom first sought help from the Ministry of Children and Family Development because he wouldn't stop hitting himself and banging his head on walls.
Later, he would lash out in class, sometimes bolting from school. By 8, Joshua told people at his school that he wanted to die and that nothing could be done. He attempted suicide for the first time when he was 11. At 13, he refused to go to school and spent days isolated in his room playing video games. School counsellors, the principal, teachers, youth engagement workers all came to his house, trying to convince him to return to school, to no avail.
In 2015, 17-year-old Joshua jumped to his death from a construction crane on the grounds of B.C. Children's Hospital.
Joshua's story is the focal point of a new report from B.C. Representative for Children and Youth Bernard Richard, that illustrates the need for more support for children who experience serious mental illness. Richard's report estimates that about 12.6 per cent of children and youth in B.C. between the ages of four and 17 experience clinically significant mental disorders at any given time. In 2015 alone, Richard’s office received more than 100 calls asking for help with advocacy for family support or mental health support.
But Joshua's story also tells us that the practice of sending children with special needs home from school needs to stop now.
Richard's report shows that the school’s response to Joshua was often to call his mother to come pick him up. But his mother was a single mom, and she couldn’t keep leaving work, or risk losing her job, which the family relied on to live.
And on this, Joshua's mom is far from alone.
Researching this story, I spoke to several parents and child and youth advocates, and they all said this is happening more and more, particularly with the teacher shortage in schools. A cross-ministry plan focused on child and youth mental health in British Columbia will help, but the bottom line is that it's going to take more resources in schools and in school districts to ensure all kids have access to in-school educational programs.
School avoidance started in preschool for Abbotsford boy
Abbotsford mom Karen Copeland’s son has been avoiding school since preschool. He needs extra learning support and has anxiety, she says. His safe place has always been his home, while school has often been a negative experience.
Over the years, she was called many times to come pick him up in the middle of the day, mostly because he wanted to come home. Last year, in high school, he didn’t attend at all from February to May.
She tried working when he was younger, but found she couldn’t because she had to always be available for her son. Now that he’s older, she has started trying to work again. She says she couldn’t imagine trying to do all of that as a single mother.
“It was just overwhelming,” Copeland said. “I speak from a position of privilege – I have a husband with a good job, so I don’t have to work. There are so many families who don’t have that option.”
Unless there is violence involved, children and youth are entitled to attend their neighbourhood school, says Glen Hansman, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF).
But it’s extremely common for schools to send kids home, says Andrea Coutu, a member of BCEDAccess, a group of parents of students with special needs that advocates for access to education. Many parents report being told their child can only go to school for an hour each day because there is no staff to work with them, she says.
Coutu says families come up with all sorts of arrangements to deal with school refusal or kids being sent home. Sometimes, they end up on social assistance. Others bring their kids to work, work night shifts, or enroll their children in private school, she says. She’s heard of police being called when parents don’t immediately respond to the school when a child is in distress, and of other children who end up in foster care.
“It leaves families and their support networks depleted,” Coutu said. “It costs families money, because they lose work, give up work or have to pay for supports or private school. And, in addition to the tremendous human cost, it results in lost economic productivity and often oppresses families, especially women.”
Some kids refuse to go to school for mental health reasons, while others might be hungry, not have clean clothes, or have a medical condition that gets in the way, Coutu says. Kids with a history of trauma, family violence or instability in the home may also struggle with leaving the home, going to school or separating from caregivers, she says.
Lack of school staff, resources
The BCTF’s Hansman says it’s a lack of staff and resources that leads to students being sent home.
“Unfortunately, we’re seeing, more and more, this practice of students being told to stay home due to a shortage of (teachers on call) or their regular special education teacher is absent. This is really problematic,” Hansman says, emphasizing that all children are entitled to go to their neighbourhood school every single day it is in session.
He says B.C. is an “outlier” when it comes to a lack of collaboration between ministries that deal with children and youth and he supports Richard’s call for a comprehensive plan for mental health services that works across ministries. Judy Darcy, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions, agrees and says her ministry is on it.
The Ministry of Education told National Observer in an emailed response that it establishes safety plans to ensure the well-being of all students in a school and that if a student poses danger to other students, the School Act allows for the removal of a student from the school.
“However, schools will work with parents or caregivers of students with complex needs to establish an individual education plan in order to ensure educational supports are in place,” the ministry said. “We agree with the Representative that a more collaborative approach between child-serving agencies is needed.”
Citing the newly formed ministry of mental health and addiction as an example of work the government is doing to create a more integrated approach, the ministry also pointed to school-based hubs as an encouraging example in this field. North Vancouver, Sooke and Nanaimo school districts have such hubs, where students can access public health nurses, therapy services and counselling options, the ministry said.
Hansman said he had not heard of the hubs, but that such supports are needed throughout the province, not just in a few schools.
The creation of the mental health and addictions ministry makes both Hansman and Richard hopeful, but Richard said he is concerned because it only has a budget of $10 million a year. He’d like to see it have the authority to set policy and to direct resources in other ministries.
Richard is calling for a plan to be created within a year and implemented within two. That can’t come soon enough for the families, just like Joshua’s, who need support today.
Tracy Sherlock writes about the B.C. government each week, on Wednesdays. Contact her with news tips at [email protected].