Nobody in B.C. seemed to notice when a young boy with autism withdrew from school, but failed to register for homeschooling or any other education program for the next five years, a report shows.
Instead, the boy essentially disappeared into a world of extreme neglect until police found him naked, filthy, unable to walk and living in a bedroom covered in garbage and feces. He was 12 years old and weighed just 65 pounds when he was removed from his mother’s care on the Lower Mainland in 2016.
The boy is doing well today and living in foster care. But an investigation of his case has exposed significant gaps in B.C’s child-serving agencies, including the education system.
Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s representative for children and youth, found that the boy’s “shocking” situation went undiscovered for years, in part, because the education system lost track of him.
“It’s just too easy for kids to fall off the radar is what I learned through this,” she said in an interview.
Her report, Alone and Afraid, quotes an unnamed pediatrician who said of the boy’s case in 2016: “If he was going to school, he would not have been in that situation. … He would have been red-flagged.”
Education Minister Rob Fleming was unavailable for an interview Tuesday, but said in an emailed statement that he was “deeply saddened” by the case and pledged to fix the problems that Charlesworth identified. “We absolutely need to do more to ensure the right supports are in place for all learners.”
Charlesworth found that the boy initially thrived at school, and when his attendance faltered, a principal notified the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
Social workers, however, took no action because they needed more than chronic absences to launch a child protection investigation in B.C., the report states.
As a result, the boy missed more than 100 days of school over two years with little to no interventions by anyone.
Eventually, his mother withdrew her son from school so that she could supposedly teach him at home. Nobody, however, followed up to see whether that was happening and he essentially vanished from the education rolls for nearly five years.
“[The boy] was not enrolled in an education program or registered as a homeschooler between October 2011 and September 2016, and no one seemed to notice, including the school, the school district, the Ministry of Education and MCFD,” Charlesworth writes.
She said the Ministry of Education confirmed that it has no system to alert officials when a student fails to register for homeschooling.
Charlesworth recommended the ministry set up a such a system and require school districts to follow up with families if a child’s name vanishes from the rolls.
She called on education officials to work with the Ministry of Children and Family Development to find a way to flag and deal with unexplained absences or withdrawals from schools.
While some provinces consider “educational neglect” a child protection concern, Charlesworth said she is “mindful of not wanting to create additional grounds” for removing children from their parents — particularly Indigenous children or children with special needs.
She remains “deeply concerned,” however, that young people can miss months or years of schooling due to a lack of communication between school and child welfare officials.
Charlesworth recommended the Education Ministry determine how many children with special needs are being homeschooled and assess whether school districts should be offering them additional support.
A total of 2,259 students were registered as homeschooled in 2017-18, but it’s unknown how many of them have special needs., the report says.
The Ministry of Education said in an emailed statement that it’s working with the Ministry of Children and Family Development to improve communication and collaboration among school districts, independent schools, ministries and community agencies.
“The ministry is also exploring creating a flag in its current student information system to enable local school districts to do a timely followup when a school-aged child is not registered in an educational program.”