Ayn van Dyk: beginning of the happy ending

Picture of Ayn van Dyk, a 9-year-old (at the time of this photo) white girl with short blonde hair, wearing a pink top and trousers, the top with grey sleeves and a white CND-type logo on it. She is sitting on a green sofa with a set of brightly-coloured soft toys behind it.This past week I heard some very happy news from the family of Ayn van Dyk, the young autistic Canadian girl who was seized from her home by social workers in British Columbia after a brief wandering incident. Last Tuesday her father signed an agreement with the department to allow Ayn to return home in the next couple of months. This is an agreement that had been suggested about a year ago, but to which they have finally agreed, just as her case was about to go to trial. This means it is highly unlikely that she will be back home for her birthday, which is this month, or Christmas, but she is likely to return in January or February. (More: Hellcat Trish.)

Ayn turns 11 this month; she was nine years old when removed from her home in June 2011, after briefly going missing from her treehouse in the back of her father’s home (she was found playing in a back garden a few doors down). At the time, she was living with her father and two brothers, her mother having moved out when she and her father, Derek Hoare, separated. The local social services, or Ministry for Child and Family Development (MCFD), alleged that the disappearances meant that Derek must have been overburdened caring for three children, two of them severely autistic, and thus not up to ensuring safety for all three of them. The social workers seized Ayn from her school after Derek refused to sign an agreement for her to go into care. Initially, she was placed in psychiatric unit, and the seizure caused her extreme distress. She was placed on psychiatric drugs, and ultimately discharged into foster care, from which she absconded twice in late 2011. The case has proceeded agonisingly slowly, with a case conference last January which set a court date for nearly a year from then, allowing for mediation.

Derek did not visit Ayn while she has been away and has resisted any suggestion of a staged return, because he did not believe Ayn would be able to deal with his coming and going — he either has to be there or not there (her mother, Amie van Dyk, had been living away and visiting before then, so she did visit as she believed Ayn could comprehend that). This may well have resulted in a delayed return, but it seems that the department made the same agreement that had been on the table a year ago because they realised they had no chance of proving to a court that Ayn needed to be in care or that her father could not care for her, at least without some support. It has also been speculated (including by me) that one reason the department did not want Ayn living with her father is simply because they wanted her to have a female main carer, particularly as she approaches puberty. The “wandering” incident thus provided an excuse to break up a family situation they disapproved of.

So, this is not a happy ending yet, but the beginning of a happy ending: Derek has been working with this expert (who he has not named, but says he is the best in the province and is working with other noted experts) to provide “an intensive ABA program” (Applied Behavioural Analysis is the same set of techniques which were used to great effect to help Carly Fleischmann, who also has severe autism and requires a machine to communicate, which Ayn does not); they also offer speech and language therapy and psychological services. The time-frame is open-ended, but Derek believes it will take more than a month but less than three.

Although everyone is overjoyed that an agreement has been reached and that Ayn is likely to be home well within three months, it is also disturbing that a deal that was on the table well over a year ago has taken that long to reach, with the inevitable disruption to everyone’s lives and the distress that it has caused Ayn, Derek and Amie, whose visits have been disrupted and who then had to deal with an angry and distressed daughter who did not understand why. If this should even have happened (and I do not believe it should have), it could, and should, have been settled in a matter of weeks, not over a year and a half. Having spoken with Canadians who have been in legal battles with health and education departments in different provinces (not only BC but also in Ontario and Newfoundland), it appears that their legal system works slowly and that actions against government departments are difficult. That must change, as state officials must not be above the law. There must be a presumption that children with disabilities, be it autism or a physical impairment, will be looked after in their home, by their families, with external support if necessary, for as long as is possible. This already functions, to a large extent, in the UK; it should be the case in the rest of the developed world. Families should not have to choose between keeping their disabled children (or other relatives) and getting them the support they need.

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