YMCA after-school program discriminated against daughter with Down syndrome, Vancouver family claims

A Vancouver family says it has pulled two of their children out of a YMCA after-school program, alleging it discriminated against and neglected their six-year-old daughter who has Down syndrome, and failed to hire a support worker the family had secured funding for.

Katie and Andrew Jameson registered their twins Kenzie and Wally in a YMCA after-school program at Malkin Park. But they say Kenzie, who has Down syndrome and is non-verbal, was increasingly isolated and neglected by the program, as weeks passed with no support worker.

They made the decision to leave the program when they found Kenzie freezing and alone, not wearing shoes outdoors in October, with mucus running down her face and her hair matted and covering her eyes.

“She can’t say if she’s cold, she can’t ask to have her nose wiped, she can’t ask to go to the bathroom, she can’t ask to have her shoes put back on. These are all reasons that we applied for funding for someone to be in the vicinity,” said Katie Jameson.

“I cried the whole way home because as her parent I was like — what did I just do to her?”

In a statement to CBC News, Roberta Haas, child protection lead and vice-president, people of the YMCA of Greater Vancouver, wrote that the YMCA “did not provide an adequate level of care for Kenzie — and failed to meet both the standards expected by Katie Jameson and our own standards. For that, we sincerely apologize.”

Haas said the YMCA has submitted an incident report to the program’s regional licensing authority and will be conducting a formal review of what happened, and that the YMCA will also undertake an independent review by a third-party to assess how it serves children with special needs. 

The Jamesons say they grew increasingly concerned about six-year-old Kenzie’s safety in the after-school program as weeks went by without a support worker. (Katie Jameson)

Katie Jameson said her daughter’s experience reflects those too often faced by children with disabilities, whose needs are frequently not met even in programs designed to be inclusive.

“It’s a learned condition to a parent with a child with a disability — if you don’t care for your kid yourself, they’re not going to get the care they need. Our son was in that program happy and well cared for — her twin. And Kenzie was completely neglected and discriminated against. It’s literal side-by-side comparison.”

Support worker not hired 

The Jamesons said they registered their twins in the after-school program over the summer. Because Kenzie has Down syndrome, the family interviewed for the program, and applied for funding from the B.C. Centre for Ability (CFA) so that the YMCA could hire an additional support worker for Kenzie.

Katie Jameson said ahead of the first day she was assured everything was in place, and she created instructional videos on how to communicate with Kenzie and use basic sign language.

“I basically provided an inclusion program for them,” she said.

But on the first day, she received a call from a staff member saying Kenzie needed to be picked up early because she had gone to the bathroom on herself and no staff member was equipped to assist her.

“I was totally confused because I was under the impression that we had a support person with Kenzie, because we had applied for funding, and the program had accepted the funding, so finding there was no support in place that way was shocking.”

The YMCA told the Jamesons no support worker had yet been hired, but that someone would be by the following week.

But the Jamesons said the YMCA never hired a permanent support worker, and instead rotated in different YMCA staff members.

The YMCA also told the Jamesons that the $17 per hour in funding they’d secured would not be enough to cover Kenzie’s needs, and asked the CFA to provide $24 per hour in funding — which the CFA accepted and provided.

The Jamesons said they were eventually asked to help find someone for the YMCA to hire, which they did — and were surprised to hear that the posting continued to be listed with a wage of $17 per hour. 

Haas’ statement from the YMCA said that “our significant efforts to find a qualified care worker for Kenzie were unsuccessful,”  and that the higher wage was eventually posted after an administrative delay.

Haas said the YMCA never used the funding because the Jamesons left the program before the YMCA could find a dedicated support worker for Kenzie. 

‘Huge safety and neglect concern’

The Jamesons say they grew increasingly concerned about Kenzie’s safety in the program. Katie Jameson said on one occasion she found her daughter with visibly wet pants, and was told she had been stimming under a picnic table for 45 minutes. Stimming is repetitive, stimulating behaviour, such as drumming fingers, or rocking back and forth, that some children with disabilities engage in.

“I asked if she had been able to go to the bathroom and they said no, she was being uncooperative,” she said, explaining that Kenzie needs a stepstool to reach the toilet, and someone to hold her hand

“She didn’t have access to a stepstool and they very openly told us that staff are not helping her in and out of the toilet.”

On one occasion, another parent sent them a photo of Kenzie sitting alone, over 100 feet from the rest of the group, near an unfenced patch of forest.

“All three staff were with the other kids, including Kenzie’s support person, which is just a huge safety and neglect concern for us,” they said.

The day that the Jamesons found her without her shoes on was the last straw, and they emailed the YMCA withdrawing their children from the program. 

The family said they were further incensed when the YMCA sent home a fundraising flyer advertising itself as a program that welcomes families of children with disabilities.

“We are a real life example of a family you claim to fundraise for, open programs for and welcome kids into, and yet we are pulling our kids from your program,” wrote Katie Jameson in an email to the YMCA. 

The YMCA said in the statement its “commitment to review, understand, and improve is sincere.”

“We recognize and acknowledge that we need to improve our processes, our training, and our knowledge in how to better serve children with diverse needs. We are committed to educating our teams and doing better.”

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