A Lower Mainland group home for foster kids was closed in May after a staff member with gang connections took a youth on drug runs, smoked pot with him and offered him cocaine, B.C.’s children’s representative says.
Bernard Richard then blasted the Ministry of Children and Family Development for not acting faster to improve these homes, especially given the damning report he released last year about the suicide of 18-year-old Alex Gervais, who was put in a hotel room — against ministry rules — after his dysfunctional group home was closed.
“Children and youth in these facilities continue to be exposed to risk. This is clearly unacceptable,” Richard said in a statement Tuesday.
In the Gervais report, Richard called on the ministry to review the background and qualifications of all staff providing services to youth in government-contracted agencies. But one year later, 46 of B.C.’s 96 agencies have not yet done this screening.
Children’s minister Katrine Conroy said the ministry brought in more people to verify that all contracted, residential facilities have completed criminal record checks on their staff. “I’ve asked for monthly updates on our plan of action and progress. If things aren’t moving fast enough, we’ll add resources,” she said in a statement.
Conroy promised other action: No new group homes will be opened without the approval of a senior ministry official, and she vowed her ministry will review the 800 youth living in these facilities to ensure their needs are being met.
“The representative rightly outlines a number of flaws in the system,” she said. “Kids shouldn’t be placed in a resource simply because it’s what’s available at the time. That’s what currently happens in many circumstances, and our children and youth in care deserve better.
“I hope, and expect, this (review) will result in moving some of those children and youth back to family-based foster homes.”
The ministry would not name the group home closed in May, citing the privacy of former residents, but said this is a systemic problem, and not just one involving a particular caregiver or agency.
In January, the ministry removed 18 youth from the unnamed home after a resident revealed that “a staff member was gang-affiliated, took youth on drug drops, had smoked marijuana with the youth, and offered him cocaine,” Richard said.
An investigation found only 10 of 33 staff and caregivers in the home had undergone criminal record checks. Nine caregivers were fired and barred permanently from this type of work, and 13 others are being further screened “due to concerning information,” he added.
Richard cited two other recent closures of bad group homes, which caused a total of 70 youth to be moved — often creating trauma by forcing them to change schools, and to meet a whole new group of caregivers and residents.
• Gervais was among 33 children and youth moved out of a Fraser Valley group home in 2015, after several staff were found to be “unqualified and unsuitable as caregivers.” He was placed in an Abbotsford hotel, against ministry polices, with an unsuitable support worker and little other help. He jumped to his death out the hotel window.
• In July 2016, another residential facility in the Lower Mainland was closed due to staffing concerns, uprooting 20 youth and children.
Richard said other concerns about these facilities include a lack of therapeutic approaches to help the teens, inappropriately grouping certain youth together in the same facility, and undue reliance on police to control the behaviour of residents.
“The ministry has known about these issues for some time, has been presented with options to improve the system, and yet continues to place the most vulnerable children in its care in harm’s way,” Richard said.
Conroy noted the flaws in the system started under the previous Liberal government, but she has been at the ministry’s helm for a year now. She has promised to overhaul the system.
The review of each of the 800 youth in these group homes will analyze what they specifically need. “For example, a youth who is violent might need a resource with Plexiglas windows and caregivers who are specifically trained to deal with violent behaviours,” she said.
A recruitment campaign for more foster homes will also be launched, targeting people with special skills — nurses, teachers and occupational therapists — who can help youth with complex needs, Conroy said.
“It will take time to get where we need to be. In the meanwhile, there can be no excuses in situations when children in our care are not being looked after properly.”