Fort family falling through the cracks

Corrina Paul has lived in Fort Saskatchewan for four years with a woman she calls mom, who is actually an unpaid caregiver and what the province calls a “supported-decision maker”. Due to Paul’s Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, she needs 24/7 supervision. But no program in the Fort can offer that and her caregiver has faced challenges in getting funding to hire support staff so she can work during the day. As a result, Paul may have to move into an Edmonton group home. (Photo by Omar Mosleh)

Corrina Paul is seated in a lightly-lit living room crafting a bracelet. She is keenly focused, despite the trio of miniature hounds running in circles and yelping excitedly.

As she binds the string into a black and yellow pattern, she explains how making bracelets provides her a sense of comfort, even as the strands of her own life are rapidly unraveling.

“It helps me think through things,” she says.

Paul, a 20-year-old Fort Saskatchewan resident who has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD), has certainly had an abundance to think about as of late. Although she considers Fort Saskatchewan her home, she may be forced to move to an Edmonton group home because the province is not able to fund the caregiver she lives with to be a 24/7 support staff due to their policies and procedures.

Originally from the Bruderheim area, Paul has lived in Fort Saskatchewan with her supporter Sarah (whose name has been changed due to an ongoing, unrelated custody dispute) for four years.  A supporter is a provincial term for someone who helps an adult make life decisions if their own decision-making abilities are impaired.

But Sarah is much more than a “supporter” to Paul. In many ways, it is Paul’s first real home, and first real family. Her biological family put her up for adoption at age six.  From there, she was adopted by a family into a home where she experienced sexual and emotional abuse for years.

After bouncing around the system in foster and group homes for most of her teenage life, Paul is damaged. Throughout her teens, she exhibited dangerous behaviours such as stealing, poor decision-making when it comes to relationships and uncontrollable bursts of anger.

Sarah believes much of Paul’s impulses are derived from the environment she grew up in.

“The system has failed me since I was six,” Paul said. “And I don’t want to go down that path again.”

While Paul’s behaviours are partly related to circumstances she experienced growing up, the ultimate challenge is her mental disability.

In addition to causing problems with attention and memory, FASD damages the part of the brain that manages impulse control. Paul’s lack of impulse control means she needs 24/7 staff support.

Left on her own, she reverts to bad habits, such as stealing, hitchhiking and perusing dating sites. Paul’s emotional vulnerability means she could easily be exploited.

But Paul is healing. When she first started living with Sarah, she was meek, didn’t like to talk and was often angry.  She was never really truly happy or sad, but mostly numb. She would pretend to cry to get what she wanted.

Today Paul laughs, smiles, and has a glimmer in her eyes that can’t be mistaken for anything but hope.

“(Sarah) is really the only family I’ve had,” Paul says while examining her artwork. “I treat her like a mom — she’s more of a mom than my (adopted) mom was. Every Christmas, Valentine’s, Mother’s Day, I was with her, because my family didn’t have the patience for me to come have it with them.”

But that’s not how Disability Services, the provincial agency that funds programs and services for disabled people, sees it. Sarah is Paul’s supported-decision maker, not her guardian. As a result, she is not permitted to receive direct funding to serve as a 24/7 support staff.

In order for Sarah to receive funding, one option is to have Paul in a day program with an agency. But due to Paul’s behaviours and restrictions, it’s tremendously challenging to find a program that can handle her.

The Robin Hood Association’s day program in Fort Saskatchewan said they were not able to meet Sarah’s expectation for constant supervision.

But even Paul herself says her restrictions, such as not being able to use a computer without being supervised, are important for her to feel safe.

“Robin Hood said the way she lived was too restrictive,” Sarah said. “The reality is they’re not my restrictions – Corrina wants them because they keep her safe. And they were unwilling to have a conversation about that.”

A spokesperson for Robin Hood Association declined to comment on Paul’s case due to client confidentiality agreements.

Paul is enrolled in a single class at Fort Saskatchewan High School, but they haven’t been able to provide a full day program or a dedicated support staff for Paul.

They also declined to comment specifically on her situation, but Elk Islands Public School Associate Superintendent Eileen Zimmerman said it would be “less common” for a student to have one-on-one supervision, although it’s possible.

“Every school system is funded in a similar fashion, so I would say we’re not disadvantaged because of our school system or where we are,” she said. “It really is dependent on the student and what they require.”

But the fact is there’s no program in Fort Saskatchewan that can accommodate Paul.

Up until October, Sarah was receiving funding from Edmonton Integrated Services. That contract was eliminated due to a lie Paul told, which she later recanted, according to Sarah.

Edmonton Integrated Services gave 30 days notice to Sarah that the contract was being eliminated, which was not enough time to find a new program.

At that time, she was on unemployment insurance for a job she took medical leave from. Since October, she’s been trying to find a job and receive funding from Disability Services so she can pay a support worker to watch Paul during the day while she works.

In order for Sarah to receive funding, the other option apart from an agency is to have a funds administrator in place, who serves as an intermediary between Disability Services and the supporter and replaces the role of the agency.

If she did receive funding from the government, it would not serve as an income. She’d still have to work so she can pay support staff during the day, because Paul needs 24/7 supervision. And the funding on its own is not enough to pay her rent and other expenses.

Recently, Sarah said Disability Services has been pushing to put Paul in an Edmonton group home, or alternatively, to have a public guardian take over her situation.

Sarah said a group home would be a disaster for Paul due to her vulnerabilities and a tendency to not do well in group settings. Paul said she has no desire to live in a group home.

“Why would you take her from a family atmosphere to one with dysfunctional adults?” Sarah questions. “I’m annoyed they’re going to let her regress. No one is taking the welfare of this girl into consideration.”

Lynne believes the province is intentionally delaying providing her funding to hire a support staff so that she gives up Paul to the housing system.

“Corrina’s my daughter but she’s not my daughter. And I don’t think it’s my responsibility to actually lose money to help her survive, I don’t think that’s what Disability Services is set up for,” she said.

Bruce Uditsky, CEO of Inclusion Alberta (an advocacy group for people with disabilities), said it’s typical for the province to take “months” for a funding agreement to be agreed upon.

But he said the situation is exacerbated because agencies eliminate services, such as was the case with Paul and Edmonton Integrated Services, without providing any transitional assistance.

“Because the government has continued to allow people to just stop providing services, this in a sense manufactures crises for individuals and families,” he said. “Because you might not find another provider right away.”

Hence where Paul and Sarah find themselves today. And because Sarah was willing to make personal sacrifices to ensure Paul would not become homeless, the province is in a position to take its time with the application.

“In a way, because she hasn’t put the young woman out on the street, while she’s there, they continue to try and figure things out,” Uditsky said.

As a result of the strain caring for Paul put on Sarah’s relationship with her partner, they ended up breaking up. She has no legal obligation to care for Paul, but has made a personal commitment to her.

“She’s been abandoned all her life. And I’m just not going to do it,” she said.

Paul is considered her own guardian by the province and says it’s her decision to live with Sarah.

“It means a lot that she’s not giving up on me. I’m just really happy that she’s been there for me,” she said.

Uditsky said the province should be doing whatever it can to preserve family structures, when possible, rather than put vulnerable persons in group environments.

“All the data shows you’re more likely to be at risk at larger group living than in smaller arrangements,” he said. “The result is more bureaucracy, more control over people’s lives, more regimentation. The larger the arrangement is, given people’s complexities, the more institutional it becomes.”

The situation has become desperate for Sarah and Paul because Sarah’s employment insurance ran out on March 6. She said she’s not willing to leave Paul to a group home unless she has no other option, so the two may have to relocate from Fort Saskatchewan to live with a friend.

“They’re pushing me to either give up this girl or be homeless,” Sarah said. “We’ve gone through hell together … and we’re going to figure it out together.”

For Paul, what matters most is the self-transformation she has achieved. Growing up, she said she frequently had suicidal thoughts due to being told she would never do anything with her life.

Today she sees a future for herself.

“Honestly, I never thought I would make to 20,” Paul said. “And now I’m starting to realize I love myself.”

The Ministry of People Services declined to comment directly on Paul’s case, but did say they would be “following up with the client and family again to discuss service options that help meet their needs.”

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