Paula Churaman’s home in Mississauga has remnants of her son Nicolas everywhere: The photos from happier times on the shelves. The blue balloons and streamers from his recent birthday party taped to the ceiling. And, the large squares of plywood hammered in to replace the smashed plaster on the walls. Tears streaming down her face, Churaman says of her son’s “episodes:” “It’s very scary. It’s terrifying. You never know what direction he is going to go in. He might get up and give you a hug, or he might kick me or reach out and hit me.”
Nicolas just turned 21. He has autism and has the capacity of about a five-year-old. Churaman has done the one thing she never imagined she would have to do. She has abandoned her own son.
“I made the decision while I was sitting in a cemetery. I did my share of crying. It’s the most heartbreaking thing I have ever had to do in my entire life. I know that once I made that call, I made that decision, there is no turning back. That’s when it hit me, oh god, my son is not going to come back home. I don’t know when I will see him again,” Churaman said.
On September 22, Churaman and her eldest son Christopher took Nicholas to a respite care facility in Oakville, Central West Specialized Developmental Services, for what Nicholas thought was a weekend outing. They waved goodbye knowing that the next day they would call the facility to say they wouldn’t be picking Nick up. Her desperate measure was an attempt to force the province and agencies to provide the care he needs.
Twenty-one is a cursed age for those with autism. They are no longer eligible for children’s programs and they are aged out of the public school system that often provides the structure they need. The Ontario Ombudsman has recently written a scathing report called “Nowhere to Turn,” describing as a “crisis” the system that is supposed to care for adults with developmental disabilities. There is an entire section on abandonment, detailing tragic stories like Churaman’s and Nicholas’. The Ministry of Social and Community Services says it doesn’t track how many cases there are of “relinquishments,” but the Ombudsman’s office tells CityNews that since their report came out in late August, they have been contacted by 45 families in similar situations.
Abandoning Nicholas may have been the hardest decision of Churaman’s life, but the fallout has been unexpected. She says the respite care home where she left him has banned her from contacting front-line workers to find out how her son is doing. She is also not allowed to see him. That birthday celebration he had at home was an early one. He spent his 21st birthday alone at the respite home. “However, I was able to take a birthday cake and some food that he likes. But I was not able to see him. I had to drop it off at the back door. That was devastating for me. It’s my sons birthday and I was not able to give him a hug, give him a kiss and let him know everything is going to be okay.”
Tuesday, Churaman has been told, Nicholas is being moved out of the facility to a home “somewhere in Halton.”
“They will not give me that information, for fear that I will show up. I have convinced them I will not. It would just give me peace of mind knowing where he is. The sad part is, I don’t know if that’s his permanent home. That could be just a temporary one until they find something permanent,” she explained.
“I was his world. I know he is wondering where his mommy is.”