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Helping abandoned children

The Sherbrooke Alternative Accommodation Center (CHAS) house is located in the heart of the Ascot district. It goes almost unnoticed, being perched on top of a small hill and surrounded by tall trees. A haven of peace with an inspiring panorama, conducive to recovery.

Behind its walls are wounded, thick-shelled children who have lost confidence in adults. Lorick *, 16, is one of them. His great passion in life is cinema. He dreams of becoming a director. What he loves most in the world is making animated short films with small figurines.

Me, my imaginary world is medieval and at the same time cinematographic. Cinema is a kind of religion, and as long as cinema exists, there is hope that we can survive., says Lorick.

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Lorick is what we call a child of the DPJ. At the age of 8, he was removed from his family environment for psychological abuse, as well as health and educational neglect. To protect himself, he has found a refuge where he feels safe and comfortable.

He is a young person who suffers a lot because he is misunderstood by the majority of people. He wants to be understood. He wants to show off, but always through his films, explains Michelle Allard, founder and director of CHAS.

Lorick’s passion is cinema. He loves making short movies with figurines.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Réjean Blais

Helping rejected children

At CHAS, Lorick shares his daily life with young people who, like him, have mental health problems, or serious behavioral problems. The Center was founded by Michelle Allard and Nicole Leblond. It is their experience as street workers that motivated them, more than twenty years ago, to create this resource for young people abandoned by parents or by a system that is at the end of its rope.

The Center is built like a family nest, on a model completely opposite to that of institutional establishments. Their wish was to make the young people feel good there, a little as if they were at home.

We didn’t start in a house like that. We started in housing a bit like the young people we welcomed at the beginning of everything. Here, the house is our gift of all that we have given in time and money, explains Nicole Leblond.

It was a pilot project that started with the DPJ. He was to welcome young people from Val-du-Lac from whom we had abdicated, and who were almost 18 years old. We had to welcome them to make the transition to adulthood. It was as if we had reached the end of the rehabilitation we could do with these young people.

Michelle Allard, co-founder and director of CHAS

CHAS was founded in 1998 and is funded by the CIUSSS de l’Estrie – CHUS. It welcomes young people from 16 to 30 years old. Nine places are available, ie seven for adults and two for adolescents from the DPJ. It has nine employees and a board of directors.

Lorick traveled through different resources of the DPJ before arriving at CHAS. Withdrawn from his family in 2012, he was placed in a rehabilitation center in Montreal for some time before being entrusted to his paternal grandparents. The lack of supervision, academic difficulties and episodes of aggression prompted the authorities to return him to a rehabilitation center, and he ended up at l’Arc-en-ciel, a specialized unit for children aged 6 to 12, in Val-du-Lac, before joining the CHAS.

He’s a complicated child, Michelle Allard notes with a touch of empathy. [Pour cette raison], we left him in his room. He spent a lot of time there in his imagination.

Appropriate help

The death of the girl from Granby in 2019 has put the spotlight on the importance of reports and rapid care for children in vulnerable situations. Care that must be effective to ultimately turn them into fulfilled adults. However, recovery is extremely difficult for many children, even if they are placed under the legal responsibility of the DYP.

According to a study by the Canada Research Chair on the Evaluation of Public Actions Towards Young People and Vulnerable Populations (CREVAJ), one in five children is homeless when they leave the rehabilitation center or of the host family. The challenge is therefore even greater for those who suffer from a mental health problem.

One of the important elements in supporting young people, or anyone with social or mental health problems, is the quality of the bond., says Martin Robert, social worker and member of the board of directors of CHAS. The one who worked in the health network for 30 years points out that this element does not correspond to the technocratic culture of the establishments.

However, CHAS has made this one of its top priorities, says Michelle Allard. Lorick, for example, is surrounded 24 hours a day by trained staff to support him in managing his daily life, his relationships with others and his emotions. Lorick’s fixation on his films, which has nevertheless caused him many conflicts with others, is used as a lever for intervention by the CHAS workers to stimulate his interest in school, and so that he improves his social relations. .

We don’t have time in the network, says Michelle Allard. Here, we take the time, we go to the rhythm of the young.

To create a meaningful bond, it takes time and you also have to respect your rhythm. Recovery is different for everyone, each on their own journey. Sometimes it takes three years, sometimes it takes more than that.

Michelle Allard, co-founder and director of CHAS
Nicole Leblond and Michelle Allard, co-founders of CHAS

Nicole Leblond and Michelle Allard, co-founders of CHAS

Photo: Radio-Canada / Dominique Bertrand

Martin Robert adds that CHAS is a resource that would be needed everywhere across Quebec. It’s a winning measure according to him.

Philippe Lambert, responsible for finding accommodation for young people at the DPJ, also considers that the work done by Michelle Allard and Nicole Leblond and their team is awesome.

These are women who care so much about the advancement of these children.

Philippe Lambert, Head of Youth Accommodation at the DPJ, CIUSSS de l’Estrie – CHUS

Martin Robert is however very critical of the cumbersome structure of the CIUSSS de l’Estrie – CHUS. In fact, he even resigned after serving on its board for a year.

It’s simple. It’s too simple. We try to replace that with processes, protocols, evaluation grids, best practices, he laments. Here in Estrie, at the CHUS, we are strong on this. We import ways of doing things from Scotland, Australia, England, Japan. Probably we would have better luck if CHAS was in New Zealand.

Another irritant is the issue of funding. For the directors and founders of CHAS, the employees and themselves are not given due recognition. Nicole adds that funding remains very, very difficult because we are subsidized by the network, but on a small scale. We are a huge saving for the system. The recognition of our work and our success would require better funding, which we have never obtained.

Martin Robert agrees. One of the issues in the question of accommodation, which is not said, is the question of costs. It is socially expensive to house people who have mental health problems. The psychiatric hospital in Sherbrooke costs a fortune. Except that the CHAS, it does not cost anything!

The CHAS house on rue Belvédère, in Sherbrooke

The CHAS house on rue Belvédère, in Sherbrooke

Photo: Radio-Canada / Réjean Blais

The long road to autonomy

Lorick is said to be schizotypal, a disorder characterized by a distorted perception of reality and difficult social relationships. The CHAS workers believe instead that he has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, which remains to be confirmed by specialists.

Many young people like Lorick require special care and supervision, and host families are not always equipped in this regard, note the two workers.

They presented him to us with a developing personality disorder. By dint of observing it, we understood that it was not the right diagnosis , explains Michelle Allard.

We can’t blame the host family, because he has a lot of difficulties … Trying to understand him, it’s not easy when you have lots of others to take care of, Nicole Leblond notes.

However, the methods used by CHAS seem to be paying off. According to stakeholders, Lorick has made progress in a year. When he arrived at the center, he was suicidal and more reactive. Today, he is in better control of his emotions. He learns to be more independent by doing his own grocery shopping, meals and laundry. Little by little, confidence sets in.

I work on my social skills in general. I have a good autonomy to cook myself, to do the housework. I have some social difficulties. How to communicate with the world. Recognize the nonverbal of people. They help me in that.


With time and patience, he can become independent, says Michelle Allard enthusiastically.

Well yes, he does a lot of things already very, very well. It’s just the outer world. Here it is fine, but it is to bring it to the outside world. It is this end that remains to be worked on. There is absolutely hope. He is loved a lot by the group and the young people really take care of him.

Lorick makes the peace sign, outside

Lorick has been doing better since his arrival at CHAS a year ago

Photo: Radio-Canada / Dominique Bertrand

Lorick still has contact with his parents. He spends time with his father about every five weeks. Relations with her mother are more complicated, however, as she suffers from schizophrenia. Meetings therefore take place occasionally, and under supervision.

Lorick will stay at CHAS at least until he is 18 years old. Fortunately, he seems to find some happiness there. He says he likes it and even considers that he is in a good period of his life.

Lorick felt the love here, rejoices Nicole Leblond. He’s a handsome young man. He is endearing. We were able to bond with him. We accepted him as he is.

All of the DPJ’s youth autonomy support services are provided by the CIUSSS de l’Estrie – CHUS. A crisis center, the Accalmie-Halte, has also been set up for young people aged 6 to 17, from all origins. It is located on the site of the Val-du-Lac rehabilitation center. Nearly 250 young people were seen there in 2019 for drug addiction problems, behavioral problems and mental health problems.

* Lorick’s name has been changed to preserve his anonymity.

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