Sean’s story

Sean’s hands were so badly frozen he almost lost them. The 18-year-old has severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and was living at the Yukon Children’s Receiving Home at the time. The 18-year-old has severe fetal alcohol...

Sean’s hands were so badly frozen he almost lost them.

The 18-year-old has severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and was living at the Yukon Children’s Receiving Home at the time.

The 18-year-old has severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and was living at the Yukon Children’s Receiving Home at the time.

“You can just do what you want.”

The teenager spent most of his time on the street.

“I’d be gone for weeks at a time,” he said.

“They don’t make much effort, they just call the cops.”

Sean was drunk the morning he almost lost his hands.

“I slipped and hit my head, so I was crawling along with no gloves on,” he said.

It was minus 35 with a wind-chill when a city bus driver happened to see him and called the cops.

In the hospital, his fingers turned black and blew up like balloons.

“They told me not to scream when they thawed,” he said.

“I spent Christmas in the hospital.”

It was the last straw for Bernice Whelan, his foster mom.

She’d cared for children in the territory for 30 years.

Sean came to Whelan when he was just seven months old. And for the next 17 years, she raised him as one of her own.

During this period, there was a constant flow of kids through Whelan’s home.

“As a foster parent, you’re basically a glorified babysitter,” she said.

“You have no rights, (family and children’s services) can take the kids away and do what they feel like whenever they want.”

Whelan adopted two of her foster children, both of whom have FASD. And she mothered Sean until he was 17.

Then, Whelan tried to retire.

Officials assured her Sean was moving into a Riverdale home with two other boys. The place has 24-hour supervision, so Whelan felt comfortable returning home to Newfoundland.

Whelan left the territory in September 2007.

Sean was supposed to move into his new home in October, spending a few weeks in the government-run receiving home.

“I thought he’d do well there,” said Whelan of the Riverdale home her ward was slated to move into.

But, after Whelan left, Sean’s move to Riverdale never happened.

“I was in the receiving home for a year and half,” he said.

Whelan wasn’t told Sean hadn’t moved. It took her months to find out the truth.

“They don’t take the time to sit and tell you the rules” at the receiving home, said Sean. “They just show you your room and that’s it.

“No one cares about you. It’s not a good environment — they just do their job and get paid.”

Sean would call Newfoundland to talk to Whelan in the wee hours of the morning.

“He’d be calling me from Main Street drunk, crying, hungry and cold,” she said.

As soon as Whelan realized Sean wasn’t in the Riverdale home, she started making arrangements for him to come live with her in Newfoundland.

But the paperwork went on for more than half a year.

During this period, Whelan would call the receiving home to check up on Sean. Staff wouldn’t know where he was, or when he was last at the place.

Then, early one morning, Sean almost froze to death on the riverbank.

When she learned the severely frostbitten youth was in hospital, Whelan put her life on hold and flew back to the Yukon to retrieve him.

Sean is like a different person, said Whelan, while sitting across from him at the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society of Yukon on Thursday night.

“The damage that’s happened in this last year and a half, it’s like he’s two different kids.”

Receiving home staff stopped giving Sean meds prescribed by his psychiatrist after he was caught selling the pills.

But instead of giving him the bottle, to sell, staff could have given Sean one pill at a time, said Whelan.

“It’s called care,” said fetal alcohol society executive director Deb Evensen.

Another teenager with fetal alcohol disorder, who Whelan fostered, is getting 24-hour care in a small home in the territory.

“And he’s blooming,” she said.

Individuals with FASD have a much harder time figuring things out, said Evensen.

Sean was assessed at Grade 2 level math and Grade 6 level reasoning, reading and writing.

“Their problem-solving ability is far below their actual age, so they have to try a lot harder every step of the way to do the minimum,” said Evensen.

“It’s like a blind person has to have brail to learn to read, a person with FASD has to be shown how to do things, they can’t figure it out on their own.

“So for someone to take them into custody, or put them in a receiving home, and not provide support by showing them what to do, and then blame them for not doing it — it’s like

blaming a blind person for not being able to read the blackboard after you don’t provide them with brail.”

Sean’s older brother, Philip (not his real name), has been in and out of jail since he was 18.

“I’ve been thrown in jail 20 times,” said the 23-year-old.

Also suffering from severe FASD, Philip was in and out of group homes for most of his life.

“It was mixed messages,” said Philip, calling from Whitehorse Correctional Centre.

“I was living with all these different people, I had no idea how to take it.”

He ended up at the receiving home in 2001.

“I was never there,” said Philip.

“I started to drink and do drugs — it was street life.

“I was trying to find a place to feel welcome.

“I felt mixed up.”

Philip went to the receiving home to eat and shower.

There was no counselling.

“I was lacking a one-on-one with the staff,” he said.

Every three months he’d go for lunch with his social worker, and she’d give him money for clothes.

“I was always lonely,” he said.

“But I had no way to express it, because I was never shown how to express it.”

Family and children’s services treated him the same way it’s treating Sean, said Philip’s community support worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect Philip’s identity.

“Children’s services didn’t care at all,” she said. “There was no one to talk to, and now he’s paying for that.”

“It’s like the kind of services that happened in residential school,” added Evensen. “And we stand back and say, ‘How could that happen,’ while we continue to send child after child

after child through there.”

Sean turns 19 in March.

“And then family and children’s services will wash their hands of him,” said Whelan.

Trying to get funding to care for Sean after his 19th birthday has been impossible, she said.

Whelan contacted Social Services Minister Glenn Hart, and was told to go through family and children’s services director Elaine Schroeder.

“But she’s away until the end of March,” said Whelan, who has to get back to Newfoundland.

“They’re happy to help with everything until he’s 19, then it’s ‘bye,’” she said.

“I’m tired of trying to fight the system.”

Whelan is willing to pay for everything — Sean’s medicine, his psychiatrists, his food, housing and clothes.

“I just don’t want to see him go on welfare,” she said. “I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall.”

Social workers are just trying to go by the book, added Whelan. “Their hands are tied.”

But people’s hands are only tied when they allow them to be tied, said Evensen.

“And every person that says, ‘I can’t do that because the system doesn’t let me do it, so I’m going to stand by and let this child be systematically abused,’ is part of it.”

Sean will be heading to Newfoundland with Whelan in the next couple of days.

His brother isn’t so lucky.

“I’m not sure when I get out (of jail),” said Philip.

“I just want to be accepted,” he added.

The public does a lot of complaining about kids like Sean and Philip, said Whelan.

“And they’re the ones that should be coming to the minister and saying, ‘It’s time for you to help these children.’

“But all they see is another native drunk.”

Across the table, Sean held up his hands.

“The fingernails are starting to grow back,” he said.

Sean’s not sure how he feels about the move to Newfoundland.

He’s not even sure how he feels about life.

“I did have dreams,” he said.

“But I can’t remember them.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

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