This is part two of a three-part series. To read part one, click here.
Elena Dvoskina and Antonio Roman came to Canada from Russia in the early 1990s for a better life and, for the most part, they found what they were looking for as they wholeheartedly embraced their new home.
But when they reached out for help in dealing with their rebellious teenager, the system failed them, miserably.
David Roman was 15 years old in 2019 when he was fatally stabbed in a privately run foster home in south-end Barrie where he had been placed voluntarily.
It’s been two years and his parents continue to search for answers and hope to see changes to a foster-care system they say doesn’t accomplish what it sets out to do. They’ve launched a lawsuit and are requesting a coroner’s inquest into the circumstances that led to their son’s death.
David's mom and dad say he was a bright boy who came across older than his years, and he was always preoccupied with big things, such as outer space. As a kid, he enjoyed going to the science centre, and as he got older he would discuss issues knowledgeably, demonstrating a level of research. And he developed an affinity for computers.
But school wasn’t one of those things that preoccupied — or even occupied — him. When Elena dropped him off at the front door, he’d scoot right through the building and out another door.
“He went to school to socialize more than to learn,” said Elena, who became known simply as David’s mom in her son’s ever-growing social circle in their Richmond Hill neighbourhood. “Everybody loved him. He was a very nice person.”
The school responded to her concerns and went out of their way to try to rectify the situation, say David's parents.
But when they learned David was smoking cannabis, they were shocked. Based on their experiences growing up under a strict Russian regime, this rang all the alarm bells. Their son was doing drugs and, in their minds, had reached the lowest depth.
“We didn’t know how to talk to him... and how to turn him away from that stuff,” she said.
Elena said nothing they tried seemed to work. They had lost control. So as a last resort, she turned to the local children’s aid society where they were assigned a case worker. The result was to try a temporary placement in a foster home where the parents assumed their son would be under expert care, free of drugs and made to go to school in a new environment.
It was a voluntary placement. David was not removed from his home; he was simply placed as a short-term solution. And his parents maintained custody of him.
“We were under the impression it was a special house with professional people who work with such kids” where other children like him were placed, she said. “We decided that we will try it and we will see if that will help.”
Things didn’t work out that way at all. In fact, his parents say, he moved in in December 2018, coming home on the weekends and the holidays. But he wasn’t registered in school until the following February.
The parents allege David, who they say had never been in conflict with the law and whose worse offences were truancy and skipping school, was placed among teens who had had serious problems and criminal records. But they didn’t know that at the time and were later told privacy protections dictated that information could not be shared.
“I think I should have been notified, if I want to continue, especially since I was the legal guardian of my son,” Elena said. “But we weren’t given the opportunity to decide.”
And the home was run by a man in his early 20s with no experience, and little oversight, say David’s parents and their lawyer.
During those initial weeks, Elena, who was also seeing a therapist with David, was encouraged — David seemed more engaged with them and there was less arguing.
“He warmed up. I almost had my David back again. So I thought it might be working,” Elena said.
In hindsight, she says she wishes other help was made available to her, like parenting classes, consultations or medical assistance for cannabis use for those under 16 years old.
She hopes an inquest will underline those shortfalls and prompt changes to the foster-care system. Foster parenting, says Elena, should be a profession, not a business or consist of simply caring people.
Educational and experience standards for foster parents is among the policy issues they would like to see addressed, said their lawyer, Alex Van Kralingen. Another is how for-profits are regulated in the foster-care system, how they are certified and regulated and the standards.
Van Kralingen asks how, even after David’s death, the private agency — Expanding Horizons Family Services Inc. — was able to renew its licence.
David’s death, his parents say, was preventable, pointing to the inclusion of a troubled youth and pressures on the foster parent to accept that youth back into the house after his arrest.
“If the system cannot provide them with adequate help, the system cannot place them in such a home when they have minimum supervision, when they don’t receive treatment for their illnesses,” said Elena.
“It was preventable, 100 per cent,” said David's mom.
The failures, Van Kralingen adds, include placing a boy with behavioural issues and previous violence in a home with three other boys, and that the home wasn’t properly assessed by the placement agencies and Expanding Horizons as the situation evolved.
“There are two incidents involving this young offender before the (homicide) itself, both of which should have prompted them to immediately remove him,” said Van Kralingen.
And he accuses the company of being negligent for placing an inexperienced untrained young man in the role of foster parent, failing to respond to his requests for help “in a situation that he was clearly, clearly out of his depth in,” said Van Kralingen, adding he was disappointed that the police returned the boy to the home.
He said the regulatory environment includes no standards for who can become a foster parent and very few obligations placed on private companies running foster homes, creating “a witches’ brew, and it’s awful and I think all of it collectively led to David’s death.
“All of those things are resolvable, solvable problems. And if people were trying to attack those problems appropriately, I feel confident that David would be here today,” added the lawyer.
Elena wishes there was another approach, another way to help parents access the help their children need. Children’s aid, she said, offered what they had available.
“Unfortunately, what they have wasn’t solving anything,” she said.