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Residents of psychiatric ward could have come home, human rights enquiry hears

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – An organization that provides supportive housing for people who live with disabilities wanted Emerald Hall residents Sheila Livingstone and Joseph Delaney to return to their original community living arrangements, but Community Services thought otherwise.`

Carol Ann Brennan. Photo Robert Devet

Delaney and Livingstone are two of the original complainants in the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission enquiry that looks into possible human rights infractions given the lack of supportive housing for people who live with disabilities. Livingstone, listed as an original complainant, died in 2016.

The offer to return to their original living situation in a small option home was made by the Regional Residential Services Society (RRSS), a non-profit organization that provides supportive housing in HRM. It was discussed during today’s testimony by Carol Ann Brennan, the executive director of RRSS.

Livingstone had lived integrated in  the community for 15 years prior to being admitted to Emerald Hall, a locked psychiatric ward within the Nova Scotia Hospital complex, in 2004. Earlier testimony by relatives suggested she was deeply unhappy there, and other testimony suggested that there was no medical reason for her prolonged stay there.

Delaney was admitted to Emerald Hall in 2010 due to some temporary health complications. He has continued to languish there ever since, very much against his will.

At today’s human rights tribunal we heard how Brennan made efforts to have both Livingstone and Delaney return to the care of RRSS after their recoveries.

“We felt that Topsail (in Dartmouth) was Sheila’s home, and if we wanted to do something differently, we wanted her to come home,” said Brennan, who sent an email to Community Services to convey that message. Funding for Livingstone’s bed had ended at that time, but Brennan wanted to male one last effort. That email never received a response.

As government lawyer Kevin Kindred pointed out during cross examination that earlier Community Services had advised Brennan that based on a medical advise Livingstone was better off at the locked psychiatric ward at this time, and that in the long term an institutional setting would be more beneficial.

But Brennan disagreed. We could have supported both Delaney and Livingstone, Brennan said, but some of the clinical staff at the Nova Scotia Hospital relied on institutional settings because of a lack of understanding of what community living entails.

Most of Brennan’s testimony, much like former RSS executive director Bev Wicks yesterday, was around the so-called moratorium on small option homes instituted in the mid-nineties. That decision caused a dramatic decrease in these shared homes that provide community integration and independence to up to three residents.

Also discussed was the so-called Disabilities Roadmap, a policy document from the Dexter years that endorsed integrated living through small option homes, combined with the closures of group homes and larger institutions within five years. Brennan had been one of the stakeholders who participated in its creation.

In cross examination Kindred suggested that the roadmap was not considered to be really all that serious a document, with an overly ambitious timeline. That’s not what I remember, Brennan replied.

We’re willing to mortgage our house

Brief and heart wrenching testimony by Jennifer MacDonald later in the afternoon served as a stark reminder what this enquiry is really all about.

Jennifer MacDonald. Photo Robert Devet

MacDonald and her husband are the main caregivers of their son Sam, now 32 years old, who lives with a variety of physical and developmental disabilities. “He’s big, he’s a spirit, he’s very social, and he enjoys Facebook, and he loves talking on the phone,” MacDonald said.

But he is also very much a handful, MacDonald added. Strong willed, and with a high threshold for pain, he is at risk of endangering himself and requires near constant supervision.

The parents’ hope is that a small option home can be found for Sam, but Community Services has not offered any help since eleven years ago a group home was identified that wasn’t to Sam’s liking.

As the parents are getting older their worries about who will take care of Sam when they no longer can increase.

“That really scares us. We are willing to mortgage our house, so that we can buy something and find him a place. We tried everywhere, but we keep being told it has to go through Community Services,” MacDonald said.  

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