At the age of 12, our son Matthew was diagnosed with depression. He was suffering from suicidal thoughts and was admitted on more than one occasion to the adolescent psychiatric ward. Matthew was prescribed different medications for his depression. In addition to depression, he started becoming very defiant to the point that he was expelled in grade 7 from the private school he was attending.
Matthew’s defiance continued in grade 8 and he became unmanageable in the home. CAS became involved when Matthew made a false accusation that he had been abused by his brother. Matthew agreed to move into a group home, but soon after arriving, he wouldn’t participate in active therapy. He started drinking alcohol and using marijuana with the other group home residents. He was hospitalized after being found vomiting on the side of the street in Parkdale.
Matthew was ‘formed’ and admitted to Youthdale’s Acute Services Unit where he should have remained for 30 days. Upon arriving, he was assigned a lawyer from the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth who informed him that he could appeal his placement. Against recommendations from 2 adolescent psychiatrists and 3 social workers, a tribunal decided that Matthew should be released from care after just 9 days.
Within 2 weeks of his release, the police were at our home 3 times. When Matthew assaulted his brother and his dad, he was arrested, became a Society Ward, and moved into a non-therapeutic CAS group home. Matthew did not attend school and his life revolved around panhandling for money to buy pot. He had numerous run-ins with the police including multiple arrests for breaching bail conditions.
Matthew was offered a placement at Youthdale’s Magnetawan treatment residence but he turned it down as he did other placement offers.
Matthew again broke down his group home placement and was moved to another non-therapeutic CAS group home. He continued to skip school and his pot use escalated. He began to deal drugs to fund his habit. He occasionally participated in therapy sessions to discuss family conflict, but not his problematic substance use. Since Matthew was often AWOL from the group home, his use of antidepressant medication was so erratic that his doctors decided to cease their use. Another psychiatric assessment occurred with a diagnoses of anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and substance use disorder added to the list.
After another three months, Matthew broke down the final group home placement and CAS told us that he should return home. We were encouraged by social workers to embrace a model of radical acceptance of Matthew and his behaviour. CAS released him from their care with a supervision order in place. Today Matthew is 18, has no high school credits and smokes pot every day.
Throughout this journey, we asked CAS for more help, but we were told that they are a child protection agency; they are not a mental health service and, thus, not there to protect a child from himself. CAS would direct me back to acute care services, but they were only a temporary solution and only if Matthew was admitted. On one occasion, Matthew was repeatedly AWOL from the group home during the dead of winter (-14C) in shorts and a t-shirt. When the police found him and took him to the hospital emergency department, they said it was a behavioural issue and wouldn’t admit him.
When I turned to the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth for help, they told me that they were not there for parents, but rather for the child. In other words, Matthew would have to call them for help, but that wasn’t going to happen as he continues to struggle with mental health, addiction, and a developmentally impaired teenage brain.
As my wife and I reflect on the last six years, it is numbing. We have sought out and had the support of over two dozen professionals ranging from psychiatrists, social workers, youth workers, counsellors, addiction specialists, teachers, guidance counsellors, pastors, and police. While we have another well-adjusted son who is 21 years old, we feel negligent in parenting him. We have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy managing and reacting to the demands of Matthew’s crises. Beyond the commitment of time, there is the emotional and physical toll. We both work in helping professions and it’s tough when you show up to work already emotionally drained and fatigued, if you’re there at all.
Just as professionals hold different opinions about how to help our son, so have my wife and I. I’m a recovered alcoholic so I feel strongly that the only path to wellness is abstinence. The majority of professionals supporting us subscribe to an approach of harm reduction. These conflicting theories of treatment fuel a discord that has put a significant strain on our marriage.
We have a flawed system in Ontario when a 12 to 16 year old child can determine that he doesn’t want help when he so obviously and desperately needs it.