TORONTO — Pamela Libralesso's family saw — and held — their 14-year-old son Monday for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Ontario.
Their boy has a rare genetic condition that manifests itself as developmental and physical disabilities. He does not speak and has spent the past six months without visitors due to the pandemic. But the government eased rules on Friday that allowed him to leave for short periods.
Hours later, Libralesso said the family reunited outside the boy's group home in Barrie, Ont.
"We approached him very cautiously, he grabbed my hand, then threw it away, and then we stared at each other," Libralesso said through soft tears.
"I don't think he could believe what happened to him. Then he grabbed my hand and we walked to the car."
Ontario's Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said the resumption of outings is important to maintain the social and emotional well-being of people living in congregate settings.
The government banned leaves and visits as the COVID-19 pandemic kicked up across the province in March.
In June, members of the Libralesso family filed an application with the province's Human Rights Tribunal arguing they should be deemed essential caregivers so they could see their son.
They wanted to be by his side in his small group home, where he lives with one other resident, to help care for him. The boy's name is being withheld due to the tribunal application.
The family alleged in its application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario that the group home company, Empower Simcoe, discriminated against their son due to his disability and violated his human rights for failing to accommodate his disability.
The company said it must follow the policies and guidelines set out by the ministry, which did not allow parents or guardians to be deemed essential. Empower Simcoe said at the time it knew it was difficult on families, but that the safeguards were there to protect both residents and staff from COVID-19.
Now, the ministry said residents who want to visit friends or family will be screened for COVID-19 exposure, must follow proper hand hygiene while gone and wear face masks when inside or when within two metres of others.
"The resumption of short-stay absences, outings and community engagement and participation is important to maintain the social, emotional well-being and quality of life of people residing in congregate living settings," the ministry wrote in a guidance document released on Saturday.
The ministry said those leaving for an overnight stay will have enhanced precautions in place for 14 days upon return.
Social Services Minister Todd Smith said Friday that all students in group homes will be able to attend school in September and the government continues to work with school boards on the file.
"The government is committed to ensuring that all of those group home residents that are entitled to an education, and that's all of them, will have that opportunity come the first day of school," he said.
Libralesso said she has discussed plans with her son's school, which is prepared for his return.
But Libralesso and others say issues remain.
NDP social services critic Lisa Gretzky said the new provincial guidance does not provide clear directives to agencies when it comes to family visits or back-to-school protocols.
"The new guidance still leaves it completely up to the discretion of each agency to decide who gets to leave, when they get to leave, or if they get to leave at all," she said. "This is not good enough."
Libralesso said 30 minutes after the family reunion, her son was splashing around the pool at home.
"He's super happy being here, he's thrilled to be in the pool, but it's confusing for him," she said. "He's giving my husband the cold shoulder which is extremely unusual because he's a daddy's boy."
The family plans to pick him up regularly and drop him off to sleep until the rules for overnight stays are clarified.
They also plan to carry on their fight before the tribunal in a bid to establish whether the extended absence violated their son's rights.
This article by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2020.
Liam Casey and Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press