The group home refused to let the residents stay with the family for Christmas

On Dec. 23, staff at Ottawa-Carleton Lifeskill’s group home told resident David Neill-Alshami he would not be going home with his family for Christmas.

Neill-Alshami, 37, has a developmental disability and his cognitive function drops somewhere between the level of a four-year-old and a six-year-old.

He answered in his limited vocabulary.

“But Christmas,” he said.

His mother, Priscilla Neill, said Christmas is his favorite day of the year and he was devastated to learn he would not spend it with his family. Neill planned for them to spend the night watching a recording of her church’s Christmas Eve service before opening presents the following morning.

The group home said due to the rapidly increasing number of cases of COVID-19, it would prohibit residents from staying away overnight.

David Neill-Alshami and sister Norah pose for a picture on his favorite day of the year – Christmas. (Posted by Priscilla Neill)

Neill said the decision came without warning after she spent weeks getting her son excited about his holiday visit.

“It’s heartbreaking and it’s the second year in a row that he has not been home,” she said. “This Christmas he could have come home … there is no logical reason why this was done two days before Christmas.”

‘As safe as possible’

Jocelyn Paul, CEO of Ottawa-Carleton Lifeskills, said the home was waiting for the county to release its guidelines before publishing its own.

The Ontario Department of Children, Community, and Social Services released new guidance on Dec. 21, to take effect on Christmas Eve, which required rapid testing for visitors, staff and residents in group homes.

The provincial guidance did not restrict residents from leaving the home, but Paul said Lifeskills decided to go “beyond” the provincial rules.

“We’re really trying to manage case counts in the agency and trying to keep everyone, both employees and residents, as safe as possible,” she told CBC Ottawa.

Neill-Alshami enjoys Christmas with her family. (Posted by Priscilla Neill.)

More than 60 residents live in the Ottawa-Carleton Lifeskill group home. Paul said the organization conducted a study at the beginning of the pandemic, which found that many of its residents are at high risk for serious complications from COVID-19 due to pre-existing health conditions.

So far, Paul said no residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

Neill said she has three doses of the vaccine and her college-age daughter has two. With only the three family members in the house, she felt the risk would have been pretty low.

“This was a last minute decision,” she added. “It was very disappointing and very hard on the mental joy of the residents – and also our stability.”

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