At the time of her death in a tragic fire earlier this year, 18-year-old Holly Harrison was on waiting lists for assisted housing, case management, respite care, a social skills group, a day program and services to help her develop social skills and learn activities of daily living.
Holly perished in a Whitby house fire on April 29, along with two other teens. While the Ontario Fire Marshal’s Office is still investigating the cause, the family has heard the blaze may have started after a towel was left on the stove.
“Our daughter’s death was completely avoidable had she had the residence and help she needed. We will fight tooth and nail to help those high-risk young adults with developmental delays or dual diagnoses until society opens their eyes and sees the problem at hand,” said Holly’s stepmother, Chrissy Zevenhoven.
She and her husband plan to be at Queen’s Park Thursday when Progressive Conservative MPP Christine Elliott, her party’s health critic and deputy leader, tables a private member’s bill to help people like Holly.
Elliott’s bill, partly inspired by Holly, calls for the creation of a select committee to address the “urgent need” for a comprehensive developmental services strategy to address the needs of Ontarians with intellectual disabilities and those dually diagnosed with intellectual disabilities plus mental illnesses.
Among the specifics, Elliott wants more housing, respite services, better educational and workplace opportunities and more social and recreational supports. She wants the various ministries that serve the 100,000 to 200,000 affected Ontarians to work better together. This includes the ministries of health, community and social services, housing, education training, colleges and universities.
“What happened to her is tragic. Unfortunately there are many other young people living in the same, dangerous circumstances. We need to do better for them,” said Elliott who along with Holly’s family is calling for a coroner’s inquest into her death.
In her short life, Holly was diagnosed with a raft of problems: “extremely low” cognitive abilities and IQ, low impulse control, severe receptive disabilities, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, clinical depression and anxiety.
Holly lived with her father and stepmother most of her life, requiring much supervision. She needed to be told to brush her teeth, take a shower, go to bed at night, get out of bed in the morning, turn off the stove and keep her room clean.
As she grew older she became defiant, bucking house rules and sometimes staying out all night.
“”We had a breakdown and called the Durham Crisis (Response) line after many (failed) attempts to find help for her and us with dealing with these disabilities. Endless nights crying in frustration and worry for our daughter’s well-being is putting it mildly,” Zevenhoven said.
But the downside of flourishing was having to leave the group home in early 2011 to make way for another teen.
She briefly moved back home with her parents, but yearning for independence she began couch surfing at the homes of equally at-risk peers. That’s what brought her to 917 Dundas St. W. in Whitby on the fateful night of April 29.
Where Holly should have been, her father, Tyson Harrison, argues, is in some form of transitional housing.
“She shouldn’t have been there,” he said of the house where she died. “That was a bad situation.”