Grieving father joins calls to overhaul Regina non-profit Raising Hope

·4 min read
The obituary photo used for Marilyn Marcline Gordon, who died on Jan.3 after a fatal overdose.  (Conley’s Funeral Home - image credit)
The obituary photo used for Marilyn Marcline Gordon, who died on Jan.3 after a fatal overdose. (Conley’s Funeral Home - image credit)

A grieving father says his daughter's death is a tragic example of how a Regina non-profit failed to support the vulnerable, at-risk women it is supposed to help.

Roland Desjarlais is one of many calling for immediate changes at Raising Hope Moving Families Forward.

Desjarlais said his 30-year-old daughter Marilyn Gordon was a resident of Raising Hope between February and September 2020. The government-funded program is run by the Street Workers Advocacy Project (SWAP) and is meant to support women facing addictions, homelessness or child apprehension. Women are provided housing and connected with services.

"She was evicted from the program. Marilyn lost all hope. The program failed her and her children," Desjarlais said at a news conference Wednesday. "Tragically, I found her deceased in her bed on the morning of Sunday, January the 3rd, 26 days after [her] being denied readmission."

Desjarlais said his daughter struggled with mental illness and addiction after her mother's death in 2017, but that she was accepted into the Raising Hope program last year and started to work toward rebuilding life for her and her children.

Af first she thrived in an environment of compassion and understanding, he said.

However, he said that environment changed in the summertime. He said she started to feel ignored and dismissed. Around that time several employees with the organization resigned after raising concerns about the way the program was being run. They said the program was no longer operating based on harm reduction, cultural safety and trauma-informed practices — a shift they believed was causing harm to clients.

Desjarlais alleges his daughter's requests for extra support were ignored.

"After months of pleading for help, she relapsed in the program. She was punished, she was shamed, she was judged," he said.

The government had apprehended her children in August, shortly before she was evicted, he said. He said she was once again grappling with addiction and homelessness by November. Desjarlais said she was "desperate" for help and applied to be accepted back at Raising Hope.

He said her intake appointment in early December was cancelled, with management citing concerns about COVID. It wasn't rescheduled.

Desjarlais said his daughter spent the Christmas holidays with him and talked repeatedly about reuniting with her children, but on Jan. 3 he found her dead from an overdose. He believes her death was preventable.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) joined Desjarlais Wednesday in calling for immediate intervention from the provincial government and an overhaul of staff at Raising Hope.

"Why does someone have to die in order for attention or change ... that's the sad part of this whole story, because it just didn't start with Marilyn's death," FSIN Vice Chief Heather Bear said.

Several former employees and residents, many who were at the new conference, have raised concerns about the program. In November, former resident Fay Munro spoke out about problems within the program, prior to her own eviction from it.

The next month, CBC published a story in which four former employees called for government intervention and detailed allegations against management at Raising Hope. They alleged harassment and intimation from staff toward other employees and residents, and also said the program had shifted away from its core pillars of harm reduction and a culturally-informed approach to healing.

In December, SWAP announced that it would launch a review of the program, but advocates remained concerned about the current leadership team taking responsibility for a review.

The Ministry of Social Services confirmed in late Feburary that it was hiring a consultant to do its own independent review of the program and its board governance. Minister of Social Services Lori Carr said in a statement that the ministry was stepping in due to concerns raised about SWAP's review.

"It's important to do so to ensure independence, transparency and public confidence in the review process," Carr said in the statement.

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said the Raising Hope program is a powerful tool to help Indigenous women heal from addictions and get their children back from care.

He called on the government to immediately change staff at the home. Cameron said it's hard not be angry at how the system has failed "and will continue to fail unless there is change."

"We don't need a review. We don't need an investigation. We know where the changes are needed."