Saturday, September 26, 2009

Canadian man with Asperger's languishes in jail

From The Observer in Sarnia, Canada:

Ken McEwan's only home is a cell at the Sarnia jail.

He desperately wants out. His family desperately wants him out.

Yet he's languished behind bars for almost eight months because there's nowhere else for him to go.

McEwan has a mental disorder known as Asperger Syndrome, a severe form of autism that frequently results in angry outbursts and makes social interaction difficult.

He has suffered with different degrees of Aspergers since he was very young and has grown progressively worse. McEwan’s father, Harvey McEwan Sr., said his son is 26 years old but has the emotional IQ of a seven-year-old.

Ken McEwan doesn’t understand why he can't leave jail. He worries about the toys he left behind when he was removed from a Community Living residence in January. He doesn't realize there are consequences to his actions. He harbours a great deal of frustration and anger and has been convicted of assault seven times.

His lawyer, David Stoesser, said in many ways McEwan is an unfortunate soul forgotten by the provincial government.

Social service officials say they are doing their best. They have attempted to find accommodation at a long list of Ontario residences. None have lasted, and the McEwans are called to come pick up their son. No government residence has been available since January.

At that time, he was living in a house provided by Community Living Sarnia-Lambton, equipped with surveillance cameras and magnetic door locks. It was staffed at all times with two workers to supervise McEwan’s every moment.

Community and Social Services has no mandate to accommodate people with Aspergers. However, the McEwans were persistent and finally convinced provincial authorities to grant an exception and try.

It's expensive, but money was provided to Community Living so that McEwan was the only resident in the secured house.

But there were problems, said Harvey McEwan Sr.

“He needs people who understand Aspergers, who will listen to him. When he's distressed, he'll become loud and panicky.”

“He'll have a temper tantrum just like a little kid when he doesn't get what he wants,” explains his brother, Harvey McEwan Jr.

One day at the residence in January, Ken McEwan’s glass broke and he became agitated. He began throwing things and yelling. Police were called and he was arrested.

He was sentenced to 15 days in jail but stayed for almost six months.

Community Living officials said they needed time to repair the damage McEwan had caused to the residence. The McEwan family wanted a change in staff supervision. They told Community Living executive director John Hagens he was often isolated at the home and his workers weren't trained to deal with Aspergers.

Finally in July, the family said, they felt they had to take him home with them. They have lived with the stress of his severe mental disorder off and on for 26 years and had misgivings. But there seemed no other choice.

Two weeks later, McEwan’s temper erupted. Police were called and, when they took him to the psychiatric ward at Bluewater Health, he allegedly threw a chair at a nurse. He was charged with assault and taken back to jail.

This week, Ken McEwan stood handcuffed in a prisoner's box in the Sarnia courthouse while Justice of the Peace Lorenzo Palumbo listened to his case.

McEwan said nothing while the lawyers talked about him, but finally appealed to Palumbo in a loud clear voice.

“Don't send me over hell's half acre. It will destroy me,” he said. “I need to be either with Daddy or in my own home. Please don't send me over hell's half acre.”

Palumbo nodded and McEwan was escorted back to his cell.

Stoesser told the court that Ontario legislation doesn't provide any housing options for a man like Ken McEwan. If he can't be managed by his own family there's nowhere for him to go. He spends time in the hospital or jail.

Bryan Chambers, COMSOC's community programs manager for the region, said the ministry is willing to provide services even though McEwan is outside its mandate.

But he admitted in court there is no agency prepared to take McEwan if he's released from jail.

“We have nowhere to place him immediately,” Chambers said. Later he said the ministry has no intention of abandoning McEwan, but added that “the ministry is not in a position to talk to Ken about where he could live.”

The Community Living house in Sarnia where Ken resided until January is fully repaired and ready to take him but there are no staff, John Hagens told Justice Palumbo.

“The physical setting is ready for Ken but we're not prepared to provide a home for him.”

People over the age of 18 with mental disorders like Aspergers are “in a no-man’s land as to who is really responsible,” Hagens said later outside the courtroom.

“There are about 90 to 100 families in Sarnia-Lambton living with adult children who have Asperger Syndrome and other developmental disabilities. Some have significant problems like Ken. There are no resources available to them,” Hagens said. “You’re hitting on a huge area of need.”

Palumbo found no reason to keep McEwan in jail and released him into the care of either his family or social services.

His father reluctantly opted to leave him in jail on the advice of his lawyer.

“If we bring Ken home, we'd get even less co-operation from social services,” McEwan Sr. said.

“It's hard to do, but nothing moves forward if we take him home.”