In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit."
~ ~Albert Schweitzer

Friday, October 8, 2021

In Residential Care Situations, What Are Essential Visitors?

These days when I come across an interesting issue or article in the media, I generally just post on FaceBook, reasoning that at least that way it will receive some attention. You may not know this but legal blogging is  a very labour and time-intensive craft (at least it is if you want to do it right) and many days I find it hard to keep up with both my practice and my life.

Although something may indeed better than nothing, the downside is that it limits how much commentary I can provide on any given issue, so it really isn't the same, is it? 

So just as I would about to add this link on the MMC Legal Services FB page , I stopped, took a deep breath and made the decision bring it here instead. Consider it a small effort at atonement.

I know for a fact that the restrictions on visitation at Dept of Community Services home in Nova Scotia has affected many individuals and their families. Although I don't know for sure exactly how negatively people have been affected here, I do know that Nova Scotia could sorely use something along the lines of this proposed Private Member's Bill in Ontario.

Many, including Taylor, hope that a private-member’s bill introduced in September 2020 could lead to change. The More Than a Visitor Act, proposed by Lisa Gretzky, NDP critic for the Ministry of Community, Children and Social Services, aims to ensure that caregivers of a group-home resident would not be treated “merely as a visitor,” especially in emergency situations. The bill defines a caregiver as an individual who “continuously or occasionally provides significant, unpaid, non-professional support to a person receiving care, support or services,” shares an “emotional bond” with the person who receives care, and is considered by the person receiving care, or their substitute decision-maker, to be a designated caregiver. “A designated caregiver,” the bill reads, “may be a family member, a neighbour, a friend, a support person, an attorney for personal care or property under the Substitute Decisions Act, 1992 or another similar type of person.”

There's already been one successful human rights decision on this issue in Ontario, in which the Commission found that a child's disability-specific needs were violated when a rigid visitor restriction policy initially allowed for only video calls or drive-by visits and when in-person visits were allowed, they were required to remain six feet apart from residents. Unfortunately, due to a  communications disability, the child could not use words to communicate, instead relying on  touch, hugging, pulling on hands, gestures and other physical displays of expression.

This decision raises (and answers) many complex and timely issues.

Significantly, the Tribunal found that “[h]uman rights protections do not go away in a pandemic”, despite the service provider's argument that the unprecedented nature of the pandemic did not allow space for individual human rights protections or individualized assessment. Although the pandemic raised important and difficult issues, service providers were still required to follow the requirements of the Code. The human rights framework is robust enough to address many contexts – including a pandemic where safety and health considerations require particular attention. 

The next point of interest is Commission's response to the argument that the parents were at fault for failing to try out the alternative methods of communication proposed offered and instead “insisted upon their preferred accommodation.” The Tribunal rejected this, finding that once the parents had made an accommodation request and explained why the alternatives offered were insufficient, it was incumbent upon the Respondent to actually consider their request, as opposed to insisting that their way was the only way. 

Although the duty to accommodate requires the cooperation of both parties cooperative process, the ultimate responsibility for finding and implementing the accommodation solution remains with the respondent.          

The third important finding relates to the effect of government guidance around safety protocols on human rights obligations. The provider asserted that it was required to strictly follow the government guidelines and couldn't deviate from these to accommodate any individual. However, the Tribunal found that such directions were advice and recommendations intended to guide service providers in their decision making. 

This mandated that the service provider implement the government’s guidelines and recommendations with its mind turned to the individual human rights of its residents. The accommodation request must be investigated and an assessment of the actual risk of accommodating the individual must be undertaken. As they had failed to do this, it was unable to demonstrate that accommodating these individual needs would amount to undue hardship.

The ball was in the respondent’s court to consider the applicant’s accommodation request, and seek its own public health advice on that specific request. It did not do so. Instead, it remained steadfast in its approach. Because the respondent did not investigate the applicant’s accommodation request, there is no objective health evidence that it would have caused undue hardship to grant the request in terms of jeopardizing the health and safety of the residents and staff in the applicant’s home. (para 132) 
Although the Tribunal’s decision relied heavily on the individual facts of the case (the child came with particular pressing needs to have meaningful contact with his parents; the group home had only two residents, which was a relatively controlled environment; and the public health authority was supportive of an individualized risk-based assessment informed by the rates of transmission in the region at that time). all of the above were important factors in the Tribunal’s determination. 

I would submit that there is a strong argument to be made that such such accommodations must be guaranteed to  adults as well. There are a myriad of factors to be considered when individuals have developmental disabilities or delays. For example, outdoor visits with strict rules around touching can be very confusing and upsetting for these individuals, no matter their age. 

The definition of "essential visitors" in residential care situations must include parents or other significant individuals and accommodations must be made [to the point of undue hardship] to meet everyone’s needs. The law requires it.

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