Barrie mom wants provincial guidelines changed to allow visits with her non-verbal son at group home

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Pamela Libralesso has not seen her son since early March

Pamela Libralesso of Barrie cannot come up with enough words of praise for Empower Simcoe and front-line staff that care for her 14 year old son Joey, who is non-verbal and has intellectual disabilities.

However, Libralesso has reached her limit in being unable to see her boy face-to-face and is asking that the province review guidelines that restrict her from visiting him at the group home where he has lived for seven years.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Libralesso would bring her son home on the weekends and see him throughout the week at school.

“We’re not sure what Joey would understand regarding window visits or any sort of electronic communication. These are not things we have done in the past,” said Libralesso. “Technology can work for lots of people but it just doesn’t work for everyone.”

She said this is the case of her son and maybe some seniors with dementia.

Libralesso said her issue isn’t with Empower Simcoe.

“Empower Simcoe has provided exceptional care. From the front-line staff and the organization as a whole. All the front-line staff are incredible and I have absolutely no doubt the care Joey is receiving is excellent.”

Empower Simcoe operates 41 group-living locations and executive director Claudine Cousins said to make an exemption for one family could spark other families wanting the same thing that could go across the sector. Cousins said the guidelines are there to minimize risk to residents and employees.

The guidelines from the province identify essential visitors as “those who have a resident who is dying or very ill or a parent/guardian of an ill child or youth in a live-in treatment setting.”

Cousins said some families have taken their loved ones home.

Libralesso said she can’t because of her husband’s work hours and it would mean keeping Joey at home until the pandemic is declared over.

“Staff are doing everything to keep the routine within the home the same. Joey didn’t live his entire life inside those four walls. He went to school every day where he saw his brother. He participated in summer camps and recreational activities. He had friends that would come visit him and he would come home to us every weekend. All of those things have stopped.”

Libralesso said she wants to work together with Empower Simcoe to come up with solutions in the interim. She suggests taking Joey for a walk in the park or visiting him in his bedroom, which Libralesso notes is right inside the front door without accessing other common areas of the home. If wearing personal protective equipment is what it takes, Libralesso said they will provide their own.

“Empower Simcoe is following the guidelines as issued by the province. They need to mitigate their own risk. We talk a lot about economic recovery and we need to talk about societal recovery. We can’t keep vulnerable people and seniors locked in their rooms. This can’t go on until a vaccine is found, potentially 12 to 18 months from now. The time to develop policy is now.”

Libralesso has fired off emails to various government ministries, the Premier, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health and the Medical Officer of Health in Simcoe Muskoka. She said the only response she has had to date, outside of communication with Empower Simcoe, has been from the local health unit.

In a statement to Barrie 360, the health unit said they had received communication from a Barrie mother on April 20 who was distraught and worried because her family has been unable see their son, who lives in a group home, due to the restrictions of COVID-19 that have been put in place to protect residents of these homes. The statement acknowledged the “significant efforts” of the group home operator to reduce the risk of COVID-19.

The statement laid out the Ministry of Health guidelines for Group Homes and Co-Living Settings and said the family has asked that the guidance be specifically reviewed as it pertains to minors, so that children can maintain physical contact with their parents throughout this pandemic.

The health unit’s Associate Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Lisa Simon, has reached out to the family and Empower Simcoe to try and facilitate a solution. As a result, the statement said the health unit has recommended to the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams that a very limited number of family members(perhaps one per resident) be allowed access, using personal protective equipment, to provide care and support to residents of group homes at this time, noting the decision rests with Dr. Williams.

Libralesso said she is not asking for an exemption just for her family.

“We are asking for the policy to be reviewed at the ministry level and implemented across the board. Not just for children and disabled children, but for seniors and adults with disabilities. Children’s hospitals are doing it. We have to balance the risk with what is best for children, parents and residents.”