Saturday, June 12, 2010

B.C. families need to fight for group homes

I remember the exact moment I started to look at people with mental handicaps in a completely different way.
It was 1985, not long after the province had closed the huge institution for “retarded” people at Tranquille, an old tuberculosis sanatorium outside Kamloops. I was working at a Kamloops newspaper at the time and the closure was big news, so I’d been part of documenting the hope, fear, anger and anticipation that the closure had sparked.
Families had been working for long, long lifetimes by then to move things forward for their mentally handicapped children, who were all ages. They had few choices in those years when it came to finding services or schooling for their children in their own home towns, and often had no option but to send their children hundreds of kilometres away to institutions such as Tranquille, Woodlands and Glendale.
The families were mostly over the moon at the thought that Tranquille’s closure would allow them to bring their children home to get all the support they needed in their own communities, which is what the government was promising. But they were terrified, too, because it’s very hard to give up a sure thing for a promise when it’s your child’s life at stake.
As for how I felt personally about the closure of Tranquille - well, I hadn’t really wondered to ask myself about that.
But then came the day when I happened to be stopped on a Kamloops street waiting for a young mentally handicapped boy to cross at the crosswalk. He appeared to be on his way home from school, walking along in the sunshine with a schoolmate and swinging his lunch kit in that big-armed way that every kid in the world is probably familiar with.
And it was all so normal. A 30-second scene, yet it clarified for me in an instant why we had to put the days of giant institutions behind us. Normal is a pretty nice place to be.
All these years on, much has changed for people with mental handicaps. They have the right to go to school. To live a real life in a real community, near to friends and family. To be paid a fair wage for a job well done. To have some say over their own lives. Those are meaningful achievements.
As for the families - well, let’s just say it’s been an interesting 25 years.
Their children’s basic needs haven’t changed in that time, because a mental handicap is forever. But everything about the way the government operates its services has been in a near-constant state of flux. Sometimes that was due to shifting philosophies or new research, but more often it was because somebody in government thought there were savings to be had by doing things differently.
The language changed: mental handicaps became developmental disabilities, and the associations and programs serving that population took to referring to their services as “community living.” When the government created Community Living BC in 2005, a new governance authority that would give families more say over services, many of those families felt they were realizing a dream.
But it’s the year of broken dreams. CLBC is now preparing to shut down group homes - the four- and five-bedroom staffed homes that people were moved into after the institutions closed. The move has been portrayed as being about choice for families, but it’s mostly about saving $22 million a year.
Many families have lobbied hard to give their adult children more housing options beyond just moving into a group home. Independent living is one more step toward normal, and I’m all for it, too.
But everything changes when the primary goal is cost savings. If families aren’t yet alarmed by what they’re hearing from CLBC, they might want to ponder what it would really mean to eliminate the only designated housing supports in B.C. for people with developmental disabilities.
Once all the group homes are gone, families will be left to fight it out with everybody else for low-income housing for their adult children. The support to help people find and keep housing will be there initially, because government needs to make the changes palatable. But for how long? And then what?
This government in particular has a history of being deceptive, ruthlessly ideological and dangerously ill-informed around social spending. CLBC may have honourable intentions, but it’s a good soldier. It’s no more likely than the health authorities to challenge government demands for cuts.
Families, you’ve been here before. It’s wrong that they’re coming for you again, but so it goes in this often unjust world. Fight.

1 comment:

tinam said...

Thanks very much for your stories in the Times Colonist and helping to bring this issue to light. There has been so little media coverage of CLBC's actions... does no one care or are we all just so used to our government's random and heartless cuts that we all just roll our eyes and move on?