Harden: Advocating for a loved one in an Ontario care home should not be a crime

Residents have a legal right to see visitors, and family members have a right to look out for the interests of loved ones. It’s time for Voula’s Law

Mary Sardelis is shown in 2019 outside the Nepean retirement home that served her with a trespass notice.

Imagine your mom was living with dementia in a retirement home, and yearned for your visits. Each time you were there, things would be forgotten, but that moment of connection would also come. “Thank you darling,” mom would say, “Thanks for being here.”

Imagine your brother lived in a group home. The extent of his disability meant it was no longer possible to live in the family house. He needed 24/7 care, and extra support. But every time you visited, his eyes shone; you knew your visit was the highlight of his day.

What you would do if you sensed something was wrong? Mom’s rapidly losing weight, for instance, or you notice several bruises on your brother’s arms. “Nothing to worry about,” the home managers might say. “We’re just run off our feet here.”

But that doesn’t add up. Something’s not right in such scenarios.

Mom is sullen and withdrawn. Your brother complains of conflict with other residents, and long waits for help. So you investigate; You talk to care workers and raise concerns to managers.

Soon a letter arrives by registered mail from the home’s management (it arrives by email too). “This letter is notice that you are no longer permitted at the home,” it reads. “Your presence at the home is disruptive and disrespectful of staff and residents, and it is our obligation to provide a safe environment. If you attempt to enter, the police will be called for a trespass violation.”

Sadly, these are not fictional scenarios. Incidents like these are happening across Ontario; families are separated from loved ones for making reasonable complaints about the living conditions of their loved ones in care homes.

The Trespass to Property Act (TPA) should not be used in instances like this. Home owners and operators have an obligation to ensure safety, but dangerous or threatening behaviour is a Criminal Code violation. The TPA is not about behaviour and shouldn’t be used as a tool to stifle complaints.

Residents have a legal right to see visitors, and family members have a right to advocate for loved ones (particularly when they are substitute decision-makers). This is what I have heard from experts in my capacity as Ontario’s critic for accessibility and  people with disabilities.

On Thursday, I will present Motion 129 for debate to insist that this use of trespass orders ends. Our motion is called “Voula’s Law” and it is inspired by Mary Sardelis, a Nepean resident, who received a trespass notice from her 98-year-old mom Voula’s Ottawa retirement home after raising concerns about how external caregivers were being treated by management. For this, Mary was banned from the home, and separated from Voula for 316 days.

As COVID-19 has made clear, the withdrawal of caregivers comes at a steep price for care home residents. There is a moment when politics has to preserve the dignity of people in crisis, and this is one of those moments.

Voula’s Law asks a simple question: Whose side are we on? Will we support seniors, people with disabilities and their families impacted by unfair trespass orders?  Or will we enable a minority of care home operators who engage in terrible acts of cruelty?

Please sign our online petition, and insist all MPPs support Voula’s Law.

Joel Harden is the NDP MP for Ottawa Centre.

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