The news of Florence Girard’s tragic death and subsequent charges against her caregivers reminds us that family, friends and neighbours have a critical and irreplaceable role in keeping disabled people safe. While the courts deal with the RCMP charges let’s not make the mistake of relying solely on formal accountability mechanisms. Instead let’s ensure a network of supportive relationships is in place for every vulnerable person in care so that no one ever has to die alone and unnoticed again.
Our comments aren’t wishful thinking. We write this as co-founders and leaders of the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN.) We have more than three decades of experience developing support networks for disabled people in B.C. and around the world. One of us has a daughter who, like Girard, has Down syndrome. Research studies back up what we’ve learned. When disabled people have a network of supportive relationships they’re safer, healthier, require less paid services, have a higher quality of life, and their risk of abuse and neglect is dramatically reduced.
Caring networks create safeguards. We aren’t referring to an occasional volunteer visit, but to an intentional and co-ordinated group of family, friends and allies. Network members are companions, watchdogs and advocates. They serve as trustees. They monitor guardianship arrangements. They assist with health care, banking and everyday decisions. Because they’re in a committed, continuing relationship with the disabled person, they know when something is wrong, they spot changes to the person’s health and temperament, and motivated by love they take action to make things better.
The outcry for more formal safeguards is understandable but misplaced. Compare the difference in coverage. An occasional monitoring visit by a government agency combined with a once-every-three-years formal certification process versus a network of friends that is always checking in, visiting regularly and sharing updates with each other.
There are many ways to establish a stable network that lasts. PLAN’s approach is to hire a community connector who works closely with the individual. When there is no family nearby, network members come from neighbours, service clubs, faith groups and people who share similar interests. In our experience most people welcome the opportunity to join with others in a caring network.
We have witnessed network members identify changes in a person’s mental health, detect tumours and arrange for medical care that was missed by service providers. They have found jobs and volunteer opportunities. They have taken up the slack when aging parents or family members weren’t available. They have protected people from being exploited and abused. They have made sure they have suitable clothing and nutritional food. And they have helped people with a terminal illness die in peace and love.
Sadly, most disabled people in care don’t have caring networks. It’s time for the B.C. government to make these relational safeguards a fundamental ingredient of our service-delivery apparatus. Not as a “nice-to-have.” Not as part of another study or investigation. But as essential in keeping people safe as all the formal safeguards combined.
We recommend the B.C. government:
1. Mandate the funding body Community Living B.C. (CLBC) to ensure relational safeguards exist for every one of their clients. This will take a modest investment of money in community groups who aren’t service providers but nowhere as much as implementing yet another system of monitors monitoring monitors, monitoring contracted agencies.
2. Require all relevant government and service-provider agencies to take courses in relational safeguards. This orientation is just as important as safety and health certificates or criminal record checks.
3. Appoint a vice-president of relational safeguards at CLBC. Unless there is a senior position with power and resources nothing will change.
4. Document the difference. The added benefit of relational safeguards is that it results in happier lives for disabled people and reduced program costs. Use the data and any savings as the basis for improving supports for British Columbians with a disability.
We can’t think of a better way to honour Girard’s memory.
Vickie Cammack and Al Etmanski received the Order of Canada for their work with disabled people and their families. They co-authored Safe and Secure — Seven Steps to a Good Life for People with Disabilities. Rebecca Pauls is executive director of the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network.