'How could so much have been missed?': Family of disabled B.C. senior who nearly died of neglect speaks out

Warning: This story contains disturbing content

Regena Cameron remembers the shock of seeing her now 71-year-old cousin Jeanette in a Kamloops, B.C.  hospital three years ago, after she was admitted in what a judge called “an advanced state of neglect”.

“It was absolutely devastating to see the condition she was in, to know how she suffered through that time period,” Cameron said. “You wouldn’t expect in this country to see anyone like that, let alone someone who is a vulnerable individual being cared for.”

For 13 years leading up to that day, Jeanette had lived with a caregiver, Dawn Brush, in her home. CTV is not using the disabled senior’s last name at the request of her family.

CAREGIVER PLEADS GUILTY

Last year, Brush pleaded guilty to failing to provide the necessaries of life for Jeanette from Jan. 1 2017, to May 6, 2019, and was given an 18-month sentence in April.

Brush was contracted though Thompson Community Services (TCS), an agency whose employees would conduct home visits meant to ensure proper care, including in the days before Jeanette went to hospital.

The judge’s decision noted a TCS manager and caseworker attended the home on May 2, 2019. The manager noted the senior looked thin, but was covered with a blanket and cap. She thought Jeanette’s bathroom and bedroom looked clean, and noticed the house smelled of urine, something the case worker also observed.

In addition, medical records showing Brush’s initials indicated Jeanette had been getting her medications daily. Supreme Court Justice Sheri Ann Donegan said in her judgement Brush admitted she did not fill any of the senior’s prescriptions after July 2017, and did not take her to the doctor for over two years.

NEAR-FATAL NEGLECT

Justice Donegan said Jeanette would have died of malnutrition without intervention,

and was admitted to hospital weighing only 72 pounds. At the time, she smelled of urine, with matted hair, overgrown nails, a pressure sore on her right hip, and an open sore on her temple that required a skin graft to repair.

That intervention came after Jeanette’s long-time doctor requested Brush make an appointment for her. When senior arrived at his office on May 6, 2019, he immediately noticed she had lost muscle mass to the point of being “just almost bone”, and recommended she be taken to hospital.

CONDITION OF THE HOME

Officers who later searched the home where she had been living testified about a strong odour of urine throughout the house, as well as cluttered and dirty rooms, some filled with garbage bags and boxes.

“The bedroom that had been occupied by (Jeanette) eight days earlier was messy, with garbage strewn throughout,” Justice Donegan wrote. “Some of the trash on the floor included used sanitary pads.”

Justice Donegan added the “foul odour” inside the home was so overpowering, one of the officers was forced to go outside at least twice to avoid vomiting. She also referenced testimony from an officer who had to abandon a search of a stack of boxes when mouse feces “rained down” on her head. Another area of the home was so stacked with garbage and other items it was not possible to walk through.

She found the Crown had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the state of the home when Jeanette left was “similar or comparable” to how it was found during the police search.

“In short, the home was unsanitary, unkempt, and not an environment suitable to provide (Jeanette) with proper care,” Justice Donegan wrote, and also disagreed with the TCS manager’s observation that the senior looked thin, and instead described her as “skeletal” in the photos taken in hospital. “She did not remove the blanket that covered her emaciated body, nor did she remove the cap that covered her scalp and matted hair and wound on her temple.”

FAMILY WANTS ANSWERS

Cameron and her family are struggling to understand how this could have happened, when a system of oversight is supposed to be in place to provide protection to those in care.

“How could you have gone into that home and not seen the devastating situation she was in?” she asked. “How could someone from that agency who is responsible go and visit over a period of two years not have noticed something seriously wrong in this situation.”

Cameron said so far, no one has provided the family with an explanation, or outlined any changes that have been made in response to what happened.

“How could so much have been missed?” she said. “I think our fear is that out there in the community, in this province, other people could be going through the same thing, and that would be tragic.”

Cameron said they have been also been following the trial of Astrid Dahl in New Westminster, a caregiver charged in connection with the death of Florence Girard, a woman with Down syndrome who was in her care.

A verdict is expected in that case next month.

SPEAKING OUT TO PREVENT MORE SUFFERING

Cameron said her family wanted to speak out about Jeanette’s case in the hopes of helping others avoid the kind of suffering she experienced.

“There’s something in the system that is failing,” she said. “What is it, and how do we get that fixed.”

CEO of Thompson Community Services Kristine DeMonte said no one was available for an interview, but in an email to CTV, said their agency underwent reviews internally and by Community Living BC, the crown corporation that contracts TCS.

“We updated our requirement regarding medications and Doctor’s visits,” she said. “We now request communication directly from the source, to confirm that visits are happening on a regular basis.”

DeMonte said a “Vulnerability Assessment tool” was also developed, to help identify safeguards that might be required.

“We brought together all of our Home Share managers from across the province,” she said “And with the assistance of (a) highly regarded external consultant we rebuilt our Home Share program incorporating best practices from the sector and lessons learned.”

She also confirmed the manager and case worker who last visited Jeanette at Brush’s home “remain employed by TCS and are employees in good standing”.

PROVINCE SAYS CHANGES MADE

Social Development Minister Nicholas Simons, whose ministry oversees CLBC, told CTV the case is “troubling”.

“What has occurred since then is the agency that was contracted by Community Living BC, and Community Living BC themselves, have changed the standards of monitoring,” he said. “Certain changes include more regular visits with people who are living in home share arrangements, to four a year. Medical appointments are documented annually and date stamped by the doctors.”

The ministry said TCS first increased the frequency of visits and required confirmation of doctor’s visits in 2020.

Simons added CLBC has also added more quality assurance analysts, who oversee placements of people in home share arrangements.

“When we hear about issues like this, we do our best to make sure that we learn what we can from situations,” he said. “Many steps have been taken to ensure that those kind of circumstances don’t happen again.”

'A FULL, HAPPY LIFE'

Jeanette is now healthy, and is living in a group home. Cameron said her cousin, who she describes as loving, gentle, and full of life, has gained weight and is “doing great”.

“She’s living a full, happy life, despite what happened to her before,” she said. “We all say the only reason she’s here is there had to be a miracle.”