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Bernard Richard, B.C.'s former representative for children and youth, in Victoria, B.C., on Nov. 26, 2016.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

More than 2,500 people working in group homes for children in government care in B.C. have undergone criminal records screening and other security checks since June, following a rebuke from the province’s children’s watchdog at the time over lack of oversight in the facilities.

The flurry of checks – there are about 82 left to go – came after B.C.'s then-representative for children and youth, Bernard Richard, learned the province had closed a group home in May following reports that a staff member with gang ties had smoked marijuana with a youth and offered him cocaine.

As of September, social workers had also reviewed care plans for the more than 800 children placed in group homes, also referred to as contracted residential agencies.

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"I gave my staff tight timelines for completing the criminal record checks on agency staff and ensuring the placements of children and youth in agency homes were appropriate, and that work is nearly complete,” Children and Family Development Minister Katrine Conroy said last week, adding that there is more to do.

B.C. Premier John Horgan, centre, and Ms. Conroy, left, listen as Minister of State for Child Care Katrina Chen speaks at a daycare in Coquitlam, B.C., on March 28, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Mr. Richard announced his plans to step down in April but stayed on the job until Aug. 31. On June 12, while still in his role, he issued a public statement citing “grave concerns” about some residential agencies. In that statement, he said a ministry investigation into a Lower Mainland agency had found serious shortcomings, including the fact that only 10 of 33 staff and caregivers had completed criminal record checks and other background security checks. That was despite Mr. Richard having specifically called for such screening more than a year earlier, in a review in February, 2017, into the death of a youth in care.

Mr. Richard also noted that similar problems had resulted in the closing of two other agencies in recent years.

In response to Mr. Richard’s statement, Ms. Conroy said at the time that no new agencies would be opened without approval from senior ministry officials and pledged a “complete overhaul” of the system.

Now, Mr. Richard’s successor, Jennifer Charlesworth, is keeping a close eye on those commitments.

“I am keenly aware of the serious concerns regarding some contracted residential agencies raised by my predecessor,” said Ms. Charlesworth, who was appointed as acting representative on Aug. 31 and confirmed in the position on Oct. 1.

“We are monitoring [the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s] progress on this issue … focusing on the review of placements in contracted agencies, screening of caregivers, the approval process for new contracted agencies and the ministry’s audit process. We will continue to keep a close watch on this file and monitor how various recommendations … will be addressed in the ministry’s plan to overhaul the system,” she added.

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In his June statement, Mr. Richard did not name the agency. But documents later obtained through a Freedom of Information request identify it as New Spirit Youth Services.

A nine-page report, dated May 14, 2018, says the ministry launched an investigation into New Spirit on Feb. 2, 2018 after being told a caregiver “was selling drugs to children in care as well as engaging in substance use with children in care.”

The ministry investigation confirmed that allegation and lists findings of “drug use by staff” and “inappropriate contact” with youth.

Many details, including specific complaints from residents, were redacted. But investigators found the young people they interviewed to be credible and “many of the youth disclosed concerns of similar nature and the disclosures were voluntary and independent,” the report states.

A telephone number for New Spirit is out of service and The Globe and Mail was not able to reach two people listed in the report as executive director of the facility.

In B.C., children taken into government care may be placed with relatives, in foster homes or in group homes. In total, there are more than 6,000 children in care in the province, of whom more than half are Indigenous.

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Contracted residential agencies include non-profit and community groups and for-profit private organizations.

Current problems with group homes reflect years of underfunding and any changes to the system should involve group home operators, said Richard FitzZaland, executive director of the Federation of Community Social Services of B.C., an umbrella group for agencies that includes group home operators.

“This circumstance is not going to be improved without an investment of money and an honest partnership between the government and the community social services sector,” Mr. FitzZaland said.

B.C.’s auditor-general is also reviewing contracted residential agencies and is expected to issue a report next spring.

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