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Potential guardians face grave choices

Shirley Chua-Tan knows that she is her son's everything. "I am his voice, I am his brain, I am his eyes, his mouth, everything," she said.

Shirley Chua-Tan knows that she is her son’s everything.

“I am his voice, I am his brain, I am his eyes, his mouth, everything,” she said.

At 24 years old, her son Ernest is legally an adult, but because of severe autism he doesn’t speak and struggles to understand some of the more complicated things in the world around him.

“He doesn’t know what’s going on. He just knows when he wants to eat, to sleep,” she said.

Chua-Tan recently completed the uncommon process of taking over full guardianship of her adult son.

That means the court has given her complete control over decisions in Ernest’s life. That could mean anything from legal or financial decisions to questions around health care or what Ernest does in his day-to-day life.

Obtaining guardianship of an adult son, daughter, or other family member who becomes incapable of making his or her own decisions is a complicated and often daunting prospect, said Colette Acheson, Executive Director of the Yukon Association for Community Living.

The organization is hosting a public event to address the subject on Tuesday, April 29 from 7 to 9 p.m. at its offices in the Yukon Inn plaza.

It will feature experts to answer questions about what the various legal options are when it comes to taking away a person’s chance to make decisions for themselves.

There are 46 adults in the territory who are under some form of guardianship.

That means a court ruled they’re not capable of making decisions when it comes to some or all aspects of their life.

The power of court-approved guardians is wide reaching. They can take control of financial, legal or health matters.

The guardian can even have control over personal decisions like where you live, where you work or how you spend your time. The court decides the scope of every order.

Guardianships can be permanent, or temporary, like in cases when someone is incapacitated in the hospital.

Applying to be a guardian can be an emotional decision for families, Acheson said. That’s especially true when it’s a parent looking to take control from their adult son or daughter.

“People are reluctant to go there because to them that’s basically saying that their adult son (or daughter) is not competent to care for themselves,” she said.

Aside from the emotional toll, the actual process and the mountain of paperwork that goes with it can also be overwhelming.

There are at least seven key documents that need to be completed. Some of the documents are as long as 26 pages.

“The forms take a long time,” Chua-Tan said. “Because we really weren’t sure how to fill them all in. We needed a lot of help from the public guardian (and trustee) office. We just kept running back and forth, back and forth.”

An assessment has to be done by a court-approved professional.

That step alone cost $900, Chua-Tan said. Overall, the process took three to four months, “and I’m a go-getter.”

The Yukon’s acting public guardian and trustee acknowledges that the process can be complicated.

But Judy Renwick says that when you’re applying to take away someone’s rights and autonomy, things need to be done right.

“It infringes on a person’s rights. It takes those rights away,” she said.

Almost anyone can apply to be a guardian. When no family member is able to take over, it’s Renwick’s office that sometimes steps in.

“The public guardian and trustee (office) takes on guardianship as a last resort. If there’s family there willing to take it on, we don’t intervene,” she said.

There’s “a very high evidentiary standard” before the court will grant a full guardianship, according to Leslie McCullough, the Justice Department’s assistant deputy minister of court and regulatory services.

“They are looking at it from not just a clinical view point, but really, under this legislation, is the person capable of decision-making?” she said.

The court also considers whether all other avenues have been explored before granting control to another person.

“For us it’s very much a last step. We want to preserve the autonomy of the person and their ability to make decisions to the greatest extent possible,” she said.

If there is a concern that the power is being abused, the Yukon’s adult protection services office can investigate.

“Taking somebody’s ability to make decisions away, that’s a really serious thing so it makes sense that it’s a court process and you have to go through a lot of steps,” McCullough said.

“The flip side of that is that it can be intimidating for people who don’t usually do it more than once in their lifetime.”

Renwick said her staff is on hand to answer any questions families have about the complex process.

Looking back, Chua-Tan said she knows she’s done the right thing for her son.

“I think it’s good. It’s a clear-cut thing now. When I go to the bank I can do the finances for him, when I go to the lawyer or the doctors or whatever.”

She said there is help out there if people need it and encouraged anyone interested to come to next week’s event.

“If they want to be a voice for their children they have to come. If you want to say something then come, on behalf of your kids.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at