Lisa Watson is AutismBC's Regional Coordinator for the Interior. In this blog, she shares her experience with police, emergency services, care staff, and members of the public during times when her son has eloped.
I am the mother of a 17-year-old autistic son with high support needs. To respect the privacy of my son, I will be referring to him as “B” throughout this post.
My son is in a Special Needs Care Agreement and lives in a staffed home. My ex-husband and I are still his parents and primary guardians; we see him regularly and spend time with him, including going on outings in the community. However, B’s needs are so extraordinary that, when he was younger, we had to make the difficult decision that he no longer reside at home with us. For more information on voluntary care agreements please go to Family Support Service Agreements BC. It has been the right decision for my family.
Even with the benefits of the staffed home B lives at, there are still challenges. B has elopement tendencies when he wants to escape a situation or sees something that may be of interest to him (e.g. a particular type of car). Over the past year, the police have been contacted 4 times in relation to my son. Even in these intense situations, I’ve been pleased with our interactions with the police and emergency services. However, I do know that we are only one family and that everyone’s experience with police and emergency services is different.
In the last 12 months, my son tried to elope in the community multiple times. The first time, B left the outdoor recreation facility where he was spending the afternoon with a support worker. He went into the road, causing the staff that were supporting him to stop traffic. Trying to stop traffic without proper signage or lights or reflective gear put these support staff in danger too. Once the cars were stopped, the staff contacted 911. The police arrived shortly afterwards with a Mental Health Nurse. I showed up just after their arrival, as the agency supporting my son had also contacted me.
Advice from a Mental Health Nurse: B’s first elopement
The police and Mental Health Nurse treated my son kindly and with compassion. They remained calm in their body language and spoken words and gave him enough personal space for the situation to be deescalated. The Mental Health Nurse did have stern words for the agency supporting my son though because they didn’t initially pick up the phone when she tried calling them back. She also reprimanded the agency for not having my son’s pro re nata (PRN) medication on-hand (medication prescribed “pro re nata” is taken as needed and not daily) or his behaviour support plan easily accessible for quick reference. That’s what these tools are designed for – emergencies like this one.
Hearing the Mental Health Nurse express the importance of these emergency strategies made me realize that she was right – the agency should have answered the phone and B’s medication and behaviour support plan should have been with the support staff while they were at the recreation facility. Despite these tough lessons and important safety reminders, B was soon regulated enough for the situation to be resolved. Soon, the police and Mental Health Nurse were able to leave.
Playground Panic: B’s second elopement
Our second interaction with emergency services happened a month after B’s elopement attempt at the recreation centre. It’s still difficult for me to write about this but I’ll try my best. This time, my son and I were at a school playground where he was using the swings. Even though B is a teenager, swinging is still his favourite thing!
When it was time to transition from the swings to getting ready to leave, B’s emotions became suddenly escalated. I believe saying “no” to B caused him to escalate. He went from 0 to 60 in mere seconds and the next thing I knew he had lunged and bit me on the shoulder. I was wearing a hoodie and T-shirt at the time, but he still managed to break the skin and I started to bleed.
The staff from the agency had left us at the school with a plan to return an hour later. I tried calling the agency staff phone with shaking hands, but there was no answer. I then called a manager of the agency and advised them I would be calling 911, as I needed help immediately. I called 911 and (thankfully) the dispatcher was kind and patient. I felt that she was asking all the right questions. I recognize that I was not the easiest to understand as I was crying and shaken, but she asked about B and what the responding officers on their way should or shouldn’t do to best help my son. She also asked about my son’s communication skills and what the emergency services personnel could do to ensure interactions with him went as smoothly as possible. I appreciated her asking these questions. At the time, I was too stressed to mention what B did or didn’t need, so her prompting me for information was beneficial and helpful.
While waiting for the police and emergency services to arrive, I was able to get my son back in the schoolyard. B had ventured out onto the sidewalk while I was making all the phone calls for help. I thought things were de-escalating while we waited. However, something triggered him again and he bit me a second time – this time on my hand. I could feel myself starting to shut down and I started sobbing. I watched as B started to approach a busy street and attempted to exit the schoolyard all over again.
My son doesn’t have community safety skills and has no sense of danger or risk. He needs constant supervision while in the community on outings. As B wandered further away, I called my partner. He arrived and, shortly afterward, the agency staff returned to the schoolyard. I was not impressed with their excuse that they had forgotten the staff phone while doing errands.
Next, the police arrived. By this time, the agency staff were able to help calm B and he was more regulated. The police asked how they could support us. Something as simple as asking how to support me and B – as opposed to assuming what supports were needed – was refreshing. The police gave B space and did not approach him directly. Instead, they interacted with me and asked how I was doing and what I needed from them. The police did not have to stick around for long once they realized that the situation had de-escalated. B went home, and I went to seek medical treatment for the bites.
Going to the Adolescent Psychiatric Unit: B’s third elopement
The third time that the police were involved with my son, I was not present. I’ll relay what was told to me by staff and my son’s father.
Like many teenagers, B has an interest in cars – in particular, he is obsessed with Ford Edges and Escapes. My son had eloped from his residence and was damaging vehicles down the street by breaking mirrors and gas caps. The staff called 911 and placed calls to both me and B’s dad. The police showed up first, followed by B’s dad. However, when B’s dad arrived, B was taken away in a police car to the Adolescent Psychiatric Unit at our local hospital. It all happened very quickly.
Cognitively speaking, B’s development is currently at an elementary school level. In this situation, he could not understand what was happening to him or why the residence staff or his dad could not go with him in the police car. Imagine how scary this was for him.
When B’s dad shared the experience with me, it broke my heart to hear this was happening to him. I remember calling his dad constantly to get updated while he followed the police car to the hospital. This elopement took place during the height of Covid and this meant that only one of us would be allowed in the hospital. I remained at home, worrying, and waited to find out what would happen to B. Luckily, he was only in the hospital long enough for the medical professionals to administer a PRN and medicate him so that he could return safely and calmly back to his residence.
At times like this, it really feels like the mental health system is applying Band-Aids without working to improve someone’s long-term mental health. Since this elopement experience, I’ve spoken to many other families in Kelowna, where B and I live. They shared that whenever their children get admitted to the Adolescent Psych Unit, they also get discharged back to the family almost immediately. I’ve since learned that there are only 8 beds in the unit and you have to be very lucky to get one. The cycle continues to repeat itself over and over. I worry that B will be sent back there again in the future and again not receive adequate support.
Help from a stranger: B’s fourth elopement
When B recently eloped for the fourth time, it was from another school playground. On the way there, B jumped out of the car and began walking very quickly down the sidewalk. I pulled over and started following behind him (actually, I was running to keep up).
Someone driving by stopped and asked if I needed help. It turned out that she was an Occupational Therapist and worked with teens on the spectrum, so she recognized the signs of a potential elopement taking place. It filled up my jaded little heart to know that someone would stop (in the middle of the Covid pandemic) to offer a hand when I needed help. Sometimes all we want to hear is someone ask if there is anything they can do. There may not be anything, but it is still nice to feel like we aren’t alone.
Just then, another parent I knew (our kids were the same age and went to elementary school together) who lived across the street shouted my name and asked if I needed help. He came out and was able to help me redirect B back to the car.
The police arrived, as someone had called them anonymously. However, the situation had resolved itself by the time they arrived, and there was no involvement necessary.
Emergency services: Support for elopements
So that is my and B’s story so far with the police and emergency services. As I said, we have had mostly positive experiences with our interactions (aside from the ride in the police car and the hospital experience). I’ve found it helpful to have emergency services professionals take the time to ask me questions about what support B needs for the situation to de-escalate rather than become even bigger and out of control than the elopements already are.
However, I’m aware that part of these mostly positive experiences is because B has advocates to help explain the situation and what is happening. Not everyone has people there to support them and that breaks my heart. B has loving parents and staff who are able to work together to ensure his safety and wellbeing.
My advice to bystanders, emergency services personnel, and anyone else suddenly implicated in an elopement situation is to please be kind. When you see someone acting erratically, you may make assumptions, but it’s important to take a moment to catch ourselves if we are jumping to conclusions. Instead of assuming it’s a person who uses drugs and attaching a stigma automatically to them, we can wonder: Is it autism or another disability? What can we do to support this person who is obviously in distress?
If you need to find out more about Voluntary Care Agreements, you can either email [email protected] or contact Inclusion BC as they can provide advocacy.