Over the past few months I’ve been following the case of Ayn Van Dyk, a 9-year-old autistic girl from British Columbia (Canada) who was taken into care very suddenly in June after briefly going missing from her father’s back garden. She was found safe and well a few hours later, playing in a neighbour’s back garden, but social services (Ministry for Child and Family Development) seized the young girl from school, as the incident followed a number of incidents of unmanageable behaviour at school, although this was the first time anything untoward had happened at home. Ayn and two brothers, one of them also autistic, were being cared for by their father, Derek Hoare, after he had split with their mother (Amie Van Dyk) a few years ago. Since Ayn was removed, she has seen her mother on some occasions, but not her father.
Normally, I do not write about child protection disputes here, because very often, those who campaign against what they allege are abuses of the system have other agendas (Christopher Booker in the Telegraph being one well-known example, who rarely fails to mention the cost of taking children into care — which is exactly why it is not done unless absolutely necessary — or the impeccable middle-class credentials of the alleged victims) and we rarely know if someone ranting about “state child abductions” really was an unfit parent; after all, the authorities are unable to comment. There are some features about this case which make me incline to believe the father’s story, however: the support he has from the autism advocacy community and from his ex-partner, and the fact that the authorities have not removed his other (male) autistic child, something they would surely do if they had any concerns about Derek Hoare’s ability to manage the care of an autistic child.
Some quite distressing details have emerged: the fact that Ayn cried for her father solidly for eighteen days after being removed, and when they supplied her with a picture of her father, she stopped. They have started giving her anti-psychotic drugs, which have numerous side effects, when she had previously not had to be drugged. It has been reported that she has wet the bed since being removed, something she did not previously do. To add insult to injury, she has also managed to abscond twice from the homes she has been in, indicating that they are no better able to contain her than her father was. Most recently, Derek Hoare has had to move Ayn’s brother to another school, to avoid the possibility for himself or the brother of meeting Ayn when the authorities return her to the same school they had both been attending. (Although the authorities are willing to allow Derek Hoare to visit Ayn, he is unwilling to as he fears she could not understand him visiting her and then leaving. Her mother has lived away from home for a few years and seen her as a visitor, so Ayn can deal with that situation.)
It is a mystery why they have kept Ayn in care for this long, when there seems to have been so little risk to her well-being or anyone else’s. Bureaucratic delay accounts for much of it: meetings have been postponed again and again, on one occasion because someone forgot to note the meeting in his diary; courts have been double-booked and then adjourned, and it is predicted that the court case, although her father is confident of eventually winning, could take up to a year. One recalls something similar happening to Mark Neary, whose autistic adult son Stephen was taken into care after a minor incident at a respite centre where he had been admitted while his father was ill; like Ayn Van Dyk, Stephen Neary was settled at home and his behaviour was a problem when he was stressed, which usually happened outside the home, particularly in unfamiliar surroundings where there were lots of people (more here). The incidents which preceded the scare in June all happened at school, where it is acknowledged that the teachers were unable to manage her. Her father reports that he has been able to teach her, on a one-to-one basis, far beyond what could be done at school. School is, of course, a difficult environment for many children with autism; many such children (and adults) thrive better when there is a low child-to-adult ratio and they are not surrounded by a lot of noisy and unpredictable children. The authorities, it seems, are more keen to manage her at school with the aid of drugs.
One would hope that the Neary case in the UK made the likelihood of such a rash decision being repeated much less likely, as the family won their case in court, along with a judgement that was highly critical of Hillingdon borough council. Anyone making decisions regarding a person with autism needs to consider their behaviour in their home environment where things are familiar to them and well-controlled, if such a place exists (and if it does not, one needs to be established). They may well have had their concerns that her father was “overwhelmed”, but they do not appear to have asked him, nor discussed their concerns before seizing her. One might hope that, once Ayn is finally returned to her father, and the authorities either admit their mistake or have it exposed in open court, that lessons are learned and no child will be seized for this reason again — but it is a lesson that will be learned at the cost of terrible distress to a young girl and her family.
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