19-year-old Parker Curran loves to dress in the bright colors of his favorite show, 'The Wiggles,' cook, craft, and go for nature walks.
Instead, the Thorold teen is forced to wear a hospital gown and mesh underwear, as he spends his days living at the maximum-security Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit at the St. Catharines hospital, designed to safely contain and treat patients who are deemed at high risk of harming themselves or others as a result of grave mental illness.
But Parker isn't mentally ill – he has severe autism and is in need of one-on-one behavioral support to help him control his outbursts.
Outside the hospital walls, Parker's family is watching as his lifelong progress is fading away from a lack of structure and routine that they say he isn't getting at the hospital, desperately waiting for a spot to open up at a group home where he can get the care he needs.
"It's heartbreaking, devastating. We have been dedicated to him his whole life. He was going to live with us for a long time. When times are good we can do just about anything with him," said Parker's mother Christie Curran in an interview with ThoroldNews.
"Now, it is like he is in a jail cell. He isn't getting any fresh air or sunshine."
The family's ordeal began when the pandemic shut down the school system in March, including Thorold High School where Parker was enrolled in a special-needs class and thriving on the structure and routine he was getting.
"That's when it started going downhill," said Christie, recounting the disappointment she saw in her son as he had to face that the annual March break-trip to Hamilton, to see Disney On Ice, followed by a visit to his favorite food joint Eastside Mario's, wasn't happening.
Eventually, the home support workers that the family hired privately to help stopped coming too, and Parker began struggling with the new reality that he couldn't comprehend due to his disability.
"His whole world fell apart. He got extremely thrown off, and it increasingly got harder at home. It felt like we were walking on eggshells all the time," said Christie.
While trying to figure out how to balance her work at a long-term care home, and her husband's work hours at a local factory, Parker's diagnosis began bringing out more outbursts, that escalated during a shopping round on May 12.
Parker had an episode at the Pendale Plaza, ending with him being taken away by police after he became violent and tried running away.
"I tried to help him, but he lost it. Two men who were just walking by jumped in to help me. Had they not done that, he would have run out onto Glendale avenue and gotten hit by a car. I couldn't keep him safe anymore," said Christie.
He was taken to the psychiatric care unit, PICU, where he was kept for eight weeks without the family being able to come and visit due to the strict pandemic protocols.
When they finally were able to reunite, Christie could tell that the hospital stay had taken a toll on her son.
"His voice was raspy. He hadn't talked in a long time. It was awful. It is so heartbreaking and traumatic for all of us."
Despite being on a waitlist for a spot at a group home that can cater to his needs since he was 18, the family hasn't heard any news about how the progress is coming along.
Niagara Centre MPP Jeff Burch has given his support to the family and recently pleaded to the Premier to aid the family in making sure Parker gets out of the hospital ward, and into a group home.
“It is difficult to understand how the government didn’t see this coming and create more group home spaces for young high-needs adults like Parker. The ball was dropped long before all eyes turned to COVID-19. Autistic adults still need group homes. They are suffering and their families are exhausted,” Burch wrote in the letter.
The family is now visiting every chance they can, bringing home-cooked meals as Parker won't eat the hospital food while clinging onto hope as a complex caseworker who is helping the family, keeps them updated on the dealings with the province as best he can.
"I get my hopes up every month, but get heartbroken again. It is devastating. As a mother, all you want to do is help your child," Christie said.
UPDATE: A fundraiser has been set up for the family. Go here to find the GoFundMe-page.