Content/trigger warning – this post discusses the abuse, neglect and death of the developmentally disabled.
If you haven’t heard of Guy Mitchell, I’m saddened but not surprised. He died in 2012 but the inquest into his death is only being held now, three years later. For up to date information on the inquest, if you’re on twitter then you can follow Susan Clairmont of the Hamilton Spectator, who has been doing yeoman’s work in reporting on the horrifying details of Guy’s living conditions and the circumstances that led to his death.
What we know
- Guy Mitchell was 38 years old and developmentally disabled. He lived in a group home in Ancaster, Ontario with another disabled man, David, and an 11 year-old autistic girl, Jennifer. The agency responsible for the home, Choices, denies it was a ‘group home’ but that appears to be how it functioned. Choices is primarily funded by the Ontario taxpayer, via the Ministry of Community and Social Services.
- “It is believed Guy — who had difficulty seeing and hearing… — was fetching water from a deep cistern when he fell in and drowned” Guy had to fetch water from the underground storage container outside because the home itself had no running water.
- Guy had lived with Karen and Bill Santor since he was 12 years old. Bill died in 1999 and Karen died in 2011. After their death, their daughter Keri-Lynne Santor, apparently somehow inherited Guy, David and Jennifer as well as her parent’s home. Ms. Santor cannot currently be located.
- CAS (remember, Jennifer was a child), Community Living, Choices and the police were all informed by various parties about problems at the home.
- Just days before Guy’s death, a Choices social worker “inspected” the home and signed it off as fine.
- When the police arrived in response to the call about Guy falling into the cistern, they discovered “the worst house they had ever seen.” Not only no running water but no heat either. No food in the fridge. Squalid, insanitary conditions: toilets and bathtubs full of human waste; Feces smeared on walls, floors and furniture; bare mattresses smeared with vomit. The police described the stench as hitting them the moment they entered the house.
How do we obtain justice for Guy Mitchell?
- Obviously the inquest is an important first step and for the results of that we need to wait. Based on Susan Clairmont’s reporting, the jury seem to be engaged and asking astute questions and the coroner is certainly not impressed with some of the parties involved, so I’m hopeful that the jury will conclude that the circumstances of Guy’s death warrant further investigation.
- We need to do everything we can to raise the profile of this case. Based on a few Google searches, the only news coverage Guy’s case has been getting is local. Shout out here to my man on the ground in Hamilton, Gingerheaddad, for bringing this story to my attention. The Toronto Star published it’s first story on the Mitchell case yesterday. (Both the Toronto Star and Hamilton Spectator are owned by TorStar). I agree with this tweet:
— Craig Burley (@craig_burley) July 14, 2015
- Follow Justice For Guy on Twitter.
- Contact news outlets to ask why they aren’t covering the story.
- If you’re in Ontario, contact your MPP to ask them if they are following the case and that you expect action on the part of the provincial government following the inquest.
- In your discussions/correspondence with your MPP note that there are regulations and laws designed to prevent child abuse and neglect, and hold abusers to account. No such laws or regulations exist for vulnerable adults.
- Both the individuals concerned and the system needs to be held accountable for Guy’s death.
How can deaths like these be prevented?
- Again, I’m interested to see what the jury recommendations are from the inquest but I do think there are big picture things we can all do.
- Speak out against the killing of disabled people by their parents and caregivers. March 1st is the Disability Day of Mourning – as far as I know, no vigils take place in Ontario. I’m willing to organize one in Toronto for 2016 or, preferably, assist a disabled person in organizing one. Attend a vigil, organize one in your area or attend a virtual vigil.
- When disabled individuals are killed, centre the victim in the story, not their killer. I gather Guy was a Special Olympics medallist and a champion bowler. I’d love to know more about him. If you see media reporting that seeks to justify or understand the killing of disabled people, push back on it, hard.
- Work to end ableism and to foster the inclusion of disabled people in their communities. Don’t know where to start? How about examining the language we all use everyday? One of the problems for me in how Guy’s case has been covered is that he has consistently been referred to as “functioning at the level of a five year old”. Guy was a 38 year-old disabled adult, not a child. The abilities of so-called “low functioning” individuals are both routinely and hugely underestimated because, a) they often don’t have access to communication tools and support and we tend to equate cognitive ability with the capacity to speak and b) we have no reliable method for assessing cognitive ability in individuals who have not developed typically. Intellectually disabled adults still deserve the rights and respect we accord other adults, regardless of their abilities; infantilizing them is profoundly disrespectful.
One of the best cures for ableism I know of is to read Amy Sequenzia. She writes for Ollibean and for the Autism Women’s Network. Her posts are collated at Non-Speaking Autistic Speaking and in the dictionary, her picture is next to the word “Awesome” – well, if it isn’t, it should be.
With respect to Ontario specifically, I would love to hear input from disabled people but these are the thoughts I have:
- Push politicians at all levels of government to provide the funding needed to ensure accessibility – now, not in ten years time. We know that integrating disabled people into their communities improves their lives and safety but how do we achieve inclusion of disabled people if they can’t function in the community due to access barriers? Note: in terms of compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, most people still think in terms of physical barriers to access (the glaring lack of elevators in Toronto’s subway stations for example). For the developmentally disabled, barriers are more likely to be cognitive inaccessibility and a lack of access to communication support.
- Communication is a RIGHT and everyone communicates. I have written many times about the lack of support that children with communication disabilities face when it comes to providing them with the tools and support they need to functionally communicate. If Guy could have told people about the conditions he was living in, something might have been done about them. Ive shared this video before but it’s an important example of a non-speaking, visibly disabled person advocating for himself:
- As I wrote in my last post, in our province we fund a “therapy” for autistic children which in many cases is simply compliance training. But the problem is bigger than just ABA programs for autism. All disabled children, but especially those with developmental disabilities, are surrounded by a culture that demands compliance. Guy Mitchell was undoubtedly taught to be compliant.
- I haven’t thought this through in depth but I do want to avoid a rush towards recommending guardianship (public or otherwise) as a way of “safeguarding” disabled adults. In my opinion we need to do the opposite: everything we can to support the autonomy and independence of disabled people. One of the problems I have found as the parent of disabled children is how there is no one point contact who can offer assistance in navigating the byzantine and fractured disability support system our politicians have designed in their piecemeal, haphazard fashion. And then once a disabled child attains adulthood, that support system drops off a cliff. Imagine instead:
- There is one place you could go for advice.
- This point person/agency would help parents of disabled children access all the financial and other supports they and their children were entitled to, from all the various levels of government. They could help design a road map and checklist for the short, medium and long term, ensure a Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) for their child is set up and put the parents in touch with lawyers who could arrange that any legacies their child received would go into either the RDSP or a Henson trust. (See a prior post for more info on RDSPs). This would ensure that any future entitlement to Ontario Disability Support would not be adversely affected by bequests, unlike this poor woman who had the “misfortune” to inherit $7,000 when her parents died.
- The point person/agency would be there to help parents navigate IPRCs and to assist in designing effective IEPs.
- Once the disabled child reached their teen years the focus would switch towards coaching the teen in how to become an effective self-advocate. Their IEP would be seen as a way of teaching them how to identify their own strengths and challenges and to negotiate the supports and accommodations they need – skills that would also be important for them to use later in both academic and employment endeavours.
- Once an adult, the disabled person would know that there was a person/agency who had an institutional memory about them, who could (with the individual’s consent) access the whole picture rather than just a fragment. If they needed help in obtaining employment, dealing with discrimination or abuse, applying for financial or other benefits, they would have someone to go to who could assist them in navigating the system.
- And what if this agency hired disabled adults to be these consultants for parents and mentors/coaches to disabled teens and adults?
Maybe it’s pie-in-the-sky thinking on my part but I don’t understand why we can’t do something like this. It’s often the case that much-needed supports and services already exist but that disabled people and their families just need help finding them. Politicians and lay folk may argue that providing this support and coaching would cost additional tax dollars but the fact is that right now, in 21st century Ontario, we are spending millions of those tax dollars on:
- the deeply flawed IBI program for autistic children
- agencies like Choices who apparently can’t ensure their clients aren’t either dying or living in Dickensian conditions, or both
- CAS, Choices, Community Living, the police – who in Guy Mitchell’s case apparently had no option but to pass the buck between themselves.
- overlap and duplication of effort but little to no co-ordination between the Ministries of Education, Health, Children and Youth Services and Community and Social Services to name just a few.
Couldn’t the money we are already spending be spent more effectively? And even if there is an additional cost, isn’t it worth it to ensure that no other Guys, Davids or Jennifers have to endure a level of abuse and neglect that we wouldn’t let animals suffer? Or are we comfortable with a system that lets a vulnerable adult die, alone and cold, in an underground water cistern?