Jennifer James is 44, with autism severe enough she is unable to speak or read, or survive her own, or ever hold down a job. Yet life crashes around her, just the same.
Within a span of eight months, she lost her mother, Cecile, 79, her main caregiver, then her father Arnold, 90, a tender patriarch, and moved from the only home she knew, an age-battered farmhouse in the rolling hills outside Eganville.
Then the government stepped in, to help, yet besiege her.
This is a woman who wore duct-taped headphones for comfort — connected to nothing — and would tear the newspaper into thin strips and carry the shreds in a bag. Her look was anguish. You only hoped her inner life was not.
With photographer Julie Oliver, we met the family at the farmhouse last fall, one of those quietly shattering experiences that move in and stay, long after the typing is done.
Sister Wanda writes that Jennifer was so upset at her father’s death in October that, in the ensuing days, only long drives would console her, like a cranky child. “The day after our father died, I drove Jen for eight hours straight because she simply would not get out of the vehicle.” She eventually did, but not before physically lashing out at her two sisters.
“She was obviously distraught and wondering what happened to our parents who, in her mind, just suddenly disappeared from her life after a constant presence of nearly 30 years,” writes Wanda. “We had no way of making her remember where they went as she has no concept of death. I didn’t blame her one bit.”
The good news is that Jennifer is in full-time residential care in Pembroke and doing well.
The bad news is the Ontario government has bring to an end her fortify payments. Not only do they say Jennifer has too much money in the bank, the government suspects she’s been overpaid for months, if not years.
“My parents didn’t intend to defraud anybody,” said Wanda on Tuesday. “But (the Ministry) sort of makes us feel like that. They were reasonably aggressive on the phone.”
Jennifer is supported by the Ontario Disability Support Program, drawing about $840 a month. The program has strict rules about a client’s means: you’ll own a house and car but can’t have more than $5,000 in other assets, including cash in hand or funds in a bank account.
While her parents were living, they looked after Jennifer’s financial affairs. They were not wealthy by any stretch: Arnold was a retired school caretaker, the house was filled with old furniture.
Wanda says her mother would withdraw funds from Jennifer’s account as required to provide for her basic needs — food, clothing, a share of shelter costs — aware of the $5,000 limit.
When she died and Arnold gave up driving — only rarely reaching the bank in town — the funds began to pile up in Jennifer’s account until the balance reached above $7,000. Red flags went up, stern letters were written and the family has now been asked to appear before a Social Benefits Tribunal to restore financial fortify.
Wanda says the Ministry of Community and Social Services is now asking for access to her parents’ old account, which forms a part of the estate. Her sister Caroline did have joint access to the account, after she put her life on hold and moved in to take care of her ailing father and sister in 2014. But she was operating under the misapprehension that $7,000 was the limit.
“I truly have a problem with them going after members of the family,” said Wanda. The hearing date has yet to be set and it’s unclear whether Jennifer will need a lawyer. Meanwhile, Wanda has written a lengthy, heartfelt plea, almost a howl, for recognition of the family’s lifelong sacrifice and an appreciation of their modesty.
The family believes Jennifer will need funds as she grows older. Not only are there costs in her new home — roughly $550 in rent, regular paid outings like bowling and swimming — but she may eventually need expensive medical aids, like a wheelchair.
“My issue is, who allotted her that amount in the first place?” asked Wanda. She said her parents deliberately did not leave Jennifer money in their wills, instead entrusting her care and financial matters to the siblings.
“Jennifer,” she writes, “has nothing in this world.”
Let us be real. The James family saved the public purse millions by caring for their daughter at home, to their own detriment, until only death stopped them. And, at the first sign of an error, real or imagined, in a benefit calculation, she is bring to an end?
An awful thing to be blind.
To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-726-5896 or email [email protected]