Year in Review: Gaps in systems for special needs big news

It is never long before the problems surrounding the area's special needs children become part of the conversation.

When discussing education in the Cowichan Valley it is never long before the problems surrounding the area’s special needs children become part of the conversation.

Early in the year, a mother approached the Citizen to talk about her situation.

Jenelle Pavlin’s daughter was slipping through the cracks in her Cowichan Valley public school and sliding towards an uncertain future — just one of the special needs students the public school system was failing.

“I’m frustrated,” Pavlin said later before she finally made a decision to pull her daughter from the mainstream system in favour of home schooling. “I’m at the point where no one is listening. I want to educate the public about how hard it is to get help.”

“I’ve waited three years, gone to multiple meetings with the school and with doctors and psychiatrists and all these agencies.

“It’s all about trying to get help for my child at school: a support system put into place, an IEP [individual education plan], and some assistance. It’s about trying to get a chronic health designation, and the wait list and how things keep happening to set you back another year,” she said.

Pavlin wasn’t alone in recognizing a problem.

It’s the kind of story that’s all too familiar to Susan Stacey, occupational therapist (OT) for School District No. 79.

She’s served in her position for more than 22 years, and urged the school board in the spring to take action quickly to help Valley children like Pavlin’s daughter who can’t get help.

School-age therapy has been around for a very long time, with the Cowichan district a progressive voice in the province, she said.

But, as with many other areas of public education, her own workload has increased steeply in the last two decades from 32 students in 1994 to 355 in 2015.

Stacey was concerned that in the Cowichan Valley’s public schools, students with OT-related needs wait far too long for OT support.

“I tried calculating that and it’s mind-boggling when you start going through the numbers. Some students have waited 10 years for service,” she told trustees.

Teachers, too, admitted seeing problems in their classrooms.

Class size and composition is huge when talking about special needs children, and those “grey area” students not yet designated as needing specific help can skew the numbers, Cowichan District Teachers Association president Naomi Nilsson reported to the school board at a spring time meeting.

“One of my colleagues that I taught with is now teaching Grade 7. He has seven designated kids in his class and there are three more on a wait list. And, because they are Grade 7, he is hoping they will get designated by the end of the year,” she said. “Grade 8 will see them leaving elementary school. When you suspect that a child will get a designation down the road, you put them on a wait list. I was talking to another teacher who has actually placed a student on a wait list in Grade 2 and, in Grade 6, that student had still not been designated,” she said.

But young children with special needs were not the only ones in the news in 2015.

In July, Valley mom, Sandra Anderson, brought her story to the Citizen.

She was desperately worried because her son, Kody, caught in a no man’s land between high school and adulthood, had seen his lifestyle change from busy to barren just because he’d turned 19.

Kody has Down Syndrome and is developmentally aged eight to 10, meaning “he could never be left on his own; he has lots of needs,” she shared.

But the active young man still has a great zest for life, according to his mom.

She described a typical day in the school year he’d just finished.

“He’d get up and take the bus to Cow High where he’d be in school all day. They’d swim, do very active recycling, wood work, P.E., things like that. Then, after school, he’d get on the bus and go over to the Clements Centre for their after-school program. He’d do that until 5:30 p.m. in the evening four days a week. Some days he would go from there and he would either go to bowling or other sports with Special Olympics. He was very, very busy, very much in the community,” she said.

Programs available through places like the Clements Centre and Providence Farm that offer a variety of activities from working in a kitchen to gardening, and fun like bowling and yoga are either not always appropriate for special needs adults or are already full, Anderson said.

Others in the Valley, heard Anderson’s call for help and a push began to secure funding for a support program for young special needs adults in the Cowichan Valley.

A big rally was held in downtown Duncan in August to raise awareness about the problems facing young adults with special needs. It attracted many supporters, including school trustees and Cowichan Valley MLA Bill Routley.

Following that, SandiLea Gibson and Adam Clutchey said they were excited about building on the success of the rally.

“We were trying to think of something to gather the troops together and it was great,” Clutchey said.

From the size of the turnout, the issue is striking a chord with Valley residents.

“It’s huge. It has been for years,” Gibson said. “Recently, we finally realized there’s no way we can allow this to slip onto the back burner,” she continued.

They and others have formed a group called the Next Step Outreach Day Program Society. Clutchey, a special needs teaching assistant, and Gibson, who runs the cafeteria at Cowichan Secondary School, are sharing the job of president of the society.

The aim is simple: start running programs for special needs young adults in the Cowichan Valley between the ages of 19 -30.

As the year ended, they were still working on getting the project going.

Gibson, who has worked with special needs youth in her cafeteria before, knows there are many ways to provide some useful activity for young people like Kody.

Clutchey is modest about his contribution, saying he just spread the word through Facebook but Gibson is blunt.

“He has been absolutely crucial. Of course, we are a team, but Adam got our butts on fire.”

Thinking up ideas for programs was pretty simple. But, getting the money together is tough and the group is hoping Routley will add his muscle to the effort.

Routley knows about the problems of caregivers first hand because he has a grandchild with autism. He came out and spoke passionately at the rally in Duncan, offering his support.

“He won’t stop until he gets somewhere with this,” Clutchey said.

However, the provincial budget is tight and many programs simply don’t get funding anymore.

Gibson said she is worried about these “sudden” adults.

“For so many of them, life stops,” Gibson said. “I can tell you how many kids who worked at Cow High with me in the caf are just walking the streets now. It’s terrifying really that there’s no place for them to go because they are not needy enough.”