A local mother is calling on the Algoma District School Board to update its safe arrivals policy after her 8-year-old autistic daughter missed school and was left alone with her deceased father for upwards of 12 hours during a school day last week.
According to a social media post made by Sheri Syrette-Stuckenbrock, her non-verbal daughter Tillie wasn’t picked up at her dad Jeff’s house to be taken to school last Friday. She says the cab driver who came by to pick her up that morning noticed Tillie was in the window waving and banging on the glass.
“She stood in the window for 20 minutes, and the cab driver feels horrible because she kept telling dispatch something wasn’t right, but they told the driver she couldn’t leave the cab,” Syrette-Stuckenbrock told SooToday. “Tillie didn’t know enough to go outside and sit there and try to get somebody.”
The cab driver alerted H.M. Robbins Public School of the situation and asked them to check on the girl. But the mother claims nobody at the school made a genuine effort to check in.
“The school called Jeff twice,” she recalls. “The first one wasn’t until 11:46 a.m., and the second one was at 12:33 p.m. when they left a voicemail. They didn’t talk to anybody. Jeff and I are separated, but we have joint custody with Tillie. They never called me.”
At around 5:15 p.m., unaware of what transpired that day, Syrette-Stuckenbrock just happened to call Jeff to ask him about one of Tillie’s prescriptions. But it was Tillie who answered the phone, and horror followed soon after.
“All she could say was ‘daddy’ over and over to me,” she says. “After two calls, it went to voicemail, and I called the police for a welfare check. An officer was sent to get me about 20 minutes later.”
The mother says the police discovered Jeff’s lifeless body when they arrived at the house. Tillie was found with blood on her clothes as it is believed she tried to help clean him up.
“If I hadn’t needed to talk to Jeff, she could have potentially been with him all night and I wouldn’t have known,” she said tearfully. “I had no idea she wasn’t at school or what had happened.”
“They’re figuring it happened first thing in the morning. She was alone all day. She had water running when police arrived. She could have started a fire; she’s a very high-demand autistic child, and she’ll get into anything and everything.”
“They believe she had been alone with him around 10 to 12 hours. My poor baby.”
A coroner’s investigation remains active and it is currently undetermined exactly how Jeff passed away. His body is being taken to Sudbury for an autopsy tomorrow. Syrette-Stuckenbrock says they’re not expected to get the full results for another few months.
“I’m heartbroken for Tillie and Jeff,” she says. “He doesn’t have his voice anymore, and Tillie can’t talk for herself. It’s up to me now to make sure something changes. We have always come together for our kids. He loved nothing more than his time with Tillie. She was all he had.”
The mom took to social media on Tuesday to voice her displeasure with the policies that she believes allowed such a terrifying incident to play out. She told SooToday the previous schools her daughter attended had automated calls in place to alert both parents if their child wasn’t present.
Moving her daughter to H.M. Robbins for the start of the school year this September, Syrette-Stuckenbrock learned the school believes in a “personal touch” approach where a secretary phones the parents concerning absences instead of an automated message.
But the mother claims she never received a call from the school after they failed to get through to the dad last Friday. The automation system at previous schools, meanwhile, always called both of Tillie’s parents.
“In the past, before I could even message Jeff that I got an automated message of her absence, he’d get the next message because it was just boom-boom-boom,” she says. “H.M. Robbins doesn’t have it because they believe having a human is better because you have a personal touch when communicating like that.”
“Well, your personal touch sucks.”
In an email to SooToday, Algoma District School Board communications officer Fran Walsh says they are aware of the incident and are currently looking into the matter.
“In order to maintain student confidentiality and privacy, we are unable to provide further details or to comment further,” the email reads.
Syrette-Stuckenbrock says she received a call from an ADSB official who told her that H.M. Robbins will be getting a new phone automation system in place, and that they will make sure any schools who aren’t currently on it will be.
The board has yet to confirm this publicly.
“I’m happy about that; we’re heading in the right direction,” she says. “But I feel like so many things failed in so many ways. I need to see change — and quick. Not just in Sault Ste. Marie, but province and countrywide. There needs to be contact systems for all kids, but especially the vulnerable ones. She’s in a taxi for a reason and has been since day one. We’ve always got those calls to this point.”
While the system could soon be changing, the mother admits it's evident that her child is struggling from the ordeal.
“She is the brightest, happiest, most musical kid,” she says. “She doesn’t do anything maliciously, but for the last couple days, she hasn’t been her ‘silly Tillie.’ She got violent last night and started punching and hitting me, and she’s never done that. She sits down on the couch and goes: ‘Daddy, daddy, it’s me Tillie.’ It’s awful.”
But since sharing her story to social media Tuesday morning, the mother’s post has blown up with hundreds of comments and shares in support of Tillie and her family. It means a lot, says Syrette-Stuckenbrock.
“A lot of people have shown me support and I’m so grateful,” she says. “I wish I could explain to Tillie how many people are reaching out to support her. It’s so much more than what I expected.”
“We’ve exposed all the cracks — small and big — and we have to find a way to patch them up and make sure nobody else falls through them. Together, maybe we can make Tillie’s voice loud enough so that everyone hears it.”