Alex Gervais died alone after years of instability, neglect: Child advocate report

Alex Gervais, 18, jumped to his death from a fourth-floor window of an Abbotsford hotel last September while in provincial care.

Alex Gervais

By Ashley Wadhwani, Vikki Hopes

Leading up to Alex Gervais’ suicide in Abbotsford in 2015, the 18-year-old suffered years of instability and neglect, a lack of permanent housing, and a disconnect from his Metis culture, a new report finds.

Alex’s Story: Broken Promises was released Monday by acting representative of children and youth Bernard Richard and details the life and suicide of Gervais, who died by falling through the window of his Abbotsford hotel room in 2015.

RELATED: Gervais’ death a suicide, says BC Coroners Service

Gervais was alone at the time of his death, having been placed in the Abbotsford hotel room for 49 days as the Delegated Aboriginal Agency (DAA) caring for him could not find a more suitable option, the report says.

In his final care arrangement, Gervais alleged that his caregiver was misappropriating the $8,000 in funds that were meant to support him, and leaving him alone and unsupported in the hotel.

The caregiver only kept in touch by text message. The report finds that when Gervais let him know he was “extremely depressed and suicidal,” the caregiver did not pass this information on to Gervais’ social worker.

But that’s not all.

The report shows that years of instability throughout Gervais’ life, including a distinct lack of permanent connections and “profound instability and neglect” while in care, are what led to Gervais committing suicide, Richard said Monday.

“Alex lived a life that none of us would wish on a child,” Richard said in a conference Monday morning.

The report says that the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) “did not seize on promising opportunities” to find a permanent living situation for Gervais, including with his stepmother in B.C. or with an aunt and her family in Quebec, where Gervais was born.

Gervais instead spent 11 years being moved through 17 different living locations – including in hotels – with 15 different caregivers.

“Instead, the ministry opted to spend much more to place the youth in a series of care arrangements with strangers that culminated in his extended hotel stay with a mainly absent caregiver,” the report reads.

While in care, Gervais complained of at least twice being sexually assaulted, of being mistreated and going unsupervised by a number of caregivers, of having food withheld as punishment and of not being provided with suitable clothing.

“Alex endured a lifetime of trauma – removed from his family at an early age, shuttled around the system and cared for by 15 different primary caregivers as well as a legion of respite caregivers,” Richard said.

“His ‘behaviours’ were often cited as the reason for his many moves rather than MCFD realizing the moves were actually inflicting even more trauma on this boy.”

 

He also was cut off from his Metis culture, the report says, because social workers and other ministry staff did not fulfill MCFD’s legal obligation to connect him with his heritage.

Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux responded to the report by saying the ministry takes full responsibility for what happened to Gervais.

“There is no argument with the facts in this report. If I’d written the report, it would say the same thing … It’s not OK that along the way, for his time in care, so many opportunities were lost,” she said.

Cadieux said the ministry has already made several changes to better address the needs of kids in care, and will continue to do so.

This includes prohibiting the non-emergency use of hotels for youth in care, she said.

She said that Gervais having lived in 17 different locations was “excessive and clearly inappropriate,” and the ministry is working to ensure that the 7,200 kids currently in care do not experience similar situations.

Cadieux said the goal is to move away from contracted resources, whenever possible, and place children in more-stable family-based settings or foster care.

She said an “early-warning system” will alert staff when a child moves more than three times in a year so that they can find out why it is happening and find a way to stop it.

Each child will also have an up-to-date care plan in place, and she said 200 more front-line staff have been added, with another 100 in place by the end of the 2017/18 fiscal year, to accomplish that.

As well, Cadieux announced $2.7 million in funding to establish criteria for the cultural planning of indigenous kids in care.

She said the ministry has also taken over criminal-record and background checks of residential caregivers, a process previously done by contacted agencies.

Cadieux said that as of Jan. 31, every one of the 700 kids currently living in contracted resources has been seen by their social worker and had their home visited. These visits will continue at least every 90 days, she said.

Cadieux said there is much work to be done.

“I recognize that much of this comes too late for the young man at the centre of this report. I accept that the ministry and I, as minister, can’t change history. We can’t go back and seize the opportunities to help him that were lost. But what I can offer is change to the system, more social workers, strengthened oversight and increased accountability.”