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Autistic boy kept in New Brunswick jail

No other place for him to stay 13-year-old must go to U.S. hospital. No other place for him to stay

13-year-old must go to U.S. hospital

The Toronto Star, KELLY TOUGHILL, ATLANTIC CANADA BUREAU, Oct. 19, 2005

HALIFAX—A 13-year-old autistic boy now living in a New Brunswick jail compound will be sent out of Canada because there is no home, hospital or institution that can handle him in his own province.

Provincial officials confirmed yesterday the boy is living in a visitor's apartment at the Miramichi Youth Centre and will be moved to a treatment centre in Maine by November.

They stressed he is not under lock and key, has no contact with other inmates and is living outside the high wire fence that surrounds the youth detention centre.

Nevertheless, the jailhouse placement and the transfer to Maine have outraged mental health advocates and opposition critics.

"They put this boy in a criminal facility because he is autistic," said Harold Doherty, a board member of the Autism Society of New Brunswick.

"Now we are exporting our children because we can't care for them. This is Canada, not a Third World country.

"We are supposed to have a decent standard of care for the sick and the vulnerable, but we don't."

Liberal MLA John Foran echoed his concern. "This boy has done nothing wrong, is not the subject of any court order, but is in a penal institution."

Provincial officials yesterday insisted critics are misrepresenting the nature of the boy's situation and that in fact the province has done everything it can to help him.

"This individual is not being held, and is not incarcerated," said Lori-Jean Johnson, spokeswoman for the family and community services department.

"He has housekeeping, bath and a separate entrance. We are just utilizing existing resources."

Privacy laws prevent officials from discussing anything that would reveal the boy's identity, including details of his previous living situation and the whereabouts of his parents.

This much is known: He suffers from a severe form of autism and is a ward of the state, under the guardianship of the minister of family and community services. He was living in a group home until recently, but became so violent that he was judged a danger to himself and others. At a psychologist's recommendation, he was moved to a three-bedroom apartment on the grounds of the Miramichi Youth Centre, a prison for about 50 young offenders. Two attendants from a private company watch the boy around the clock, at a cost to taxpayers of $700 a day.

Johnson said she does not know any details of his care.

Doherty said the jailhouse placement and move to Maine highlight the desperate need for better services for autistic children in New Brunswick and across Canada.

He said staff at most group homes in New Brunswick aren't trained to deal with autism and don't understand the disorder.

"If you don't understand autism, things can become very bad very quickly," said Doherty, who has a 9-year-old son with the disorder.

"We have been pushing for (better facilities) in New Brunswick for several years. This is not a crisis that has popped up in the last two days. Residential care is a critical element for these people and it is not being provided."

Johnson said the provincial system of group homes and institutions that care for children and adults with psychiatric disorders and mental disabilities works for most people.

"We do have existing resources, but once in a while, there will be an exception. Here, we are looking at a very extreme case."

The boy will be moved to an Augusta, Me., treatment centre at the end of the month, said Johnson.

The centre, run by a non-profit group called Spurwink, specializes in dealing with autistic adolescents.

A Spurwink representative did not return a phone call from the Toronto Star.

Provincial officials could not detail the cost to keep the child at Spurwink, nor did they have information about why he's being sent to Maine, rather than a Canadian facility in another province.