For the third time in three years, B.C.’s Ministry for Children and Families has closed a major group home for children and youth because of serious concerns about staff behaviour – some criminal – prompting the provincial watchdog to warn that many vulnerable kids continue to be entrusted to unqualified and unsuitable caregivers.
Bernard Richard, the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, said he wants to know why the government continues to pay 46 agencies to run group homes where staff have not been properly screened to care for hundreds of children and youth who are wards of the government.
“These are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable children in the province,” Mr. Richard said in an interview.
“They are being cared for in some cases by people who have offered to smoke pot with them, take them on drug drops, offered them cocaine, have gang affiliations and criminal records – it’s pretty astounding.”
Mr. Richard is calling for a meeting with Katrine Conroy, the Minister for Children and Families, to ensure the 18 children and youth displaced by the most recent closing are not allowed to slip between the cracks.
The most recent case came to light when a youth in a Lower Mainland group home came forward with allegations about a staff member. The subsequent investigation found a number of serious shortcomings with the agency, including the fact that only 10 of 33 staff and caregivers had completed criminal record and other security-screening criteria.
A different home was closed in 2016 after allegations of inappropriate care turned up a number of troubling issues, including a staff member who used crack cocaine in the presence of one of the youth in care and then threatened the youth for reporting the incident.
In 2015, the ministry closed a group home because of concerns that ranged from inappropriate physical discipline to staff using drugs and viewing pornography. Following the closing, Alex Gervais, one of the teenage residents, was placed in a budget hotel in Abbotsford for months. A caregiver was paid $8,000 a month to monitor the youth, but had not visited the teen in the 10 days before Alex leapt to his death from his hotel room.
Following Alex’s death, Premier John Horgan – then-leader of the NDP opposition – said the case revealed “a system that is broken and a government, quite honestly, that just doesn’t care.”
But Mr. Horgan’s NDP government has now been in power for almost a year and Mr. Richard said the improvements the NDP promised have not materialized.
The ministry has still not reviewed the backgrounds and qualifications of all staff who are currently providing care to children and youth in contracted residential agencies. Mr. Richard said the lack of screening is just part of the problem – staff are inadequately trained and rely unduly on police intervention to manage problem behaviours.
He said his office offered to set up a working group with the ministry to address the issues, but Ms. Conroy’s office declined. “They told us they had the matter well in hand,” Mr. Richard said.
On Tuesday, Ms. Conroy said she was caught off guard about the number of facilities that had still not completed staff screening and said she has instructed her deputy minister to ensure that work is completed immediately.
“We need to do a better job.”
As well, she said she wants the individual plans for each of the 800 youth currently in residential care facilities to be reviewed in the next three months to ensure they are being properly treated. And she said the government needs to attract more qualified foster parents to reduce the need for group homes.
She said compensation levels for foster care, which have been frozen for a decade, are being reviewed. “People have tried to correct the status quo,” Ms. Conroy said. “I think what we have to do is overhaul the system.”
But Mr. Richard said he remains skeptical that her government now has a handle on the problems around group care homes. “It’s hard to have any confidence.”