A Grand Manan family is worried sick about a boy who is under the care and protection of New Brunswick's minister of social development.
They say the teen — we're calling him Michael since he can't be identified under the Family Services Act — is sleeping rough in the streets of Saint John or taking shelter with older men.
Several times in recent months, family members have travelled to the city to try to find Michael. They say he keeps running away from the Douglas Lake Treatment Centre.
That's a three-bed group home for youth who require treatment and support for their emotional, behavioural and mental health needs.
Michael's 18-year-old uncle — we'll call him David — has made three trips to Saint John since early March.
David said he always checks the area around Tim Horton's on Waterloo Street.
Once, he said, he was able to persuade Michael to return to his group home, a 15-minute drive east of the city.
On another trip, he bought Michael food but couldn't talk him into leaving the streets. Michael told David he sleeps out near a hockey arena and eats at a soup kitchen.
"He told me he was sleeping for a while under that kind of overpass near the skate park, where TD Station is," David said. That's where group home workers found his belongings burned, David said.
"He told me that they feed him at Romero House and sometimes he sleeps in strangers' apartments."
On April 2, after Michael had been missing for nearly a week, David found him uptown, reeking of alcohol and vomit. David was so disturbed he called police.
"I watched as two police talked to him, then let him walk away with what looked to be a 50-year-old man," he said.
David fears Michael is being exploited and using drugs. He said his nephew's mental deficiencies affect his judgment and his ability to understand danger.
History of illness
CBC News reached Michael's mother and his father by phone. They declined to be interviewed.
Michael's mother said she felt so exhausted and overwhelmed, she preferred to have her brother David and Michael's paternal aunt speak for the family.
Michael's 40-year-old aunt, whom we'll call Mary, said Michael is a clever boy and used to show an aptitude for reading until he developed behavioural problems in school.
The family shared documents with CBC News to corroborate its account of Michael's problems, including an Oct. 12, 2018, letter from his school principal, written at the family's request.
According to that letter, by the time Michael was 12, he had been involved in 58 incidents, including bullying, taunting and disrupting class. Seven incidents involved violence. Twice, he brought a knife to school.
Michael could also be polite and considerate with staff, the principal wrote, and the family was supportive.
The mother is "always willing to work with us," the principal wrote.
The family also provided a copy of a letter from a Saint John pediatrician, who said Michael was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.
Despite three different medications, regular counselling and mentoring through Social Development, the youth continued to be "extremely physically and verbally abusive."
Michael would punch or kick his parents or his grandparents, wrote the doctor.
He would also refuse to do basic tasks such as brushing his teeth or getting dressed.
The doctor noted that the mother had to quit her job to be more available to protect other members of the household.
Signed over custody
Mary said the family struggled to cope, and it was a constant challenge to get Michael access to the services and treatment he needed, especially living on Grand Manan.
It forced the parents to make a difficult decision, and the family provided a copy of a three-month custody agreement, dated Feb. 26, 2019, that put their son into the care of the minister.
The reasons given were that Michael was beyond their control, and his violent behaviour at home put his siblings at risk of physical and emotional harm.
The family provided a copy of the Oct. 5, 2020, guardianship agreement, in which the parents agreed to sever their custody rights permanently.
In that contract, the minister of social development agreed to provide care that would meet Michael's physical, emotional, educational and recreational needs.
Mary said Michael's parents felt they had no other options.
"If they didn't sign, they'd be bringing him home with no help whatsoever," she said. "So they signed it in the hopes that their son was going to get the help he needed and was going to be safe."
Mary said that's not how it turned out, and the family lives in fear Michael will end up in hospital or jail or worse.
Group home response
On March 12, CBC contacted Susan O'Neill, manager of the John Howard Society in Saint John, which runs the Douglas Lake Treatment Centre.
She said she would look into the case and provide information the following day. She didn't, and has not responded to further messages.
Mary said she's troubled that the group home can't seem to keep Michael safe.
She said she spoke to Michael's social worker, whose message was that Michael shouldn't be protected from criminal charges, since he might get treated if he goes into the criminal system.
The social worker declined to be interviewed.
The system should do better, says child advocate
New Brunswick's child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock said he hadn't heard of Michael's situation and could not comment if he did.
"The system is supposed to be set up to handle the tough cases," said Lamrock.
"But there are things that can, and should be, done better."
Lamrock said the criminal system should not be used as a default to get youth the services they need.
"If there is a route to any kind of treatment … then that route should be available to Social Development without criminal charges," he said.
He said the courts already struggle with finding youth the treatment they need, and he suggested it might make sense to embed Crown prosecutors in the Department of Social Development.
"The prosecutor shouldn't be coming to court when a youth needs treatment and have no idea whether that treatment is available," said Lamrock.
Lamrock said his office continues to press for improvements to the group home system, including better pay and better training for staff.
No answer from minister
On March 31, David wrote a heartfelt plea to Social Development Minister Bruce Fitch, asking him to "put himself in the shoes of our family."
David described his family as "loving people who had to make the heartbreaking decision to relinquish custody of their son, only for him to end up walking the streets with only the clothes on his back, and abusing drugs."
"I hope you can help us find a solution to this problem, so that [Michael] can get the help that he needs that was unavailable on Grand Manan, and so that we no longer have to spend each night worrying that the next day we might have to make an emergency trip to the hospital."
David never heard back from Fitch.
The minister would not be interviewed, and his department did not make anyone else available.
Instead, Social Development emailed a statement that explained the placement options for children in the care of the minister — there are 1,000 children now — and what happens when a child placed in a residence leaves without permission.
"The process requires the residence in which the child is placed to notify the Department of Social Development and the police, as well as the child's family. When the child is located, all efforts are made to return the children or youth to their placement."