Group homes in British Columbia – including the one where an 11-year-old boy was stunned with an RCMP taser two weeks ago – "frequently" call in police to help them discipline kids, says the province's watchdog for children and youth.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has launched an investigation into group homes and other staffed residences for children in care, prompted by her preliminary review of the Prince George tasering incident earlier this month.
"These incidents do not arise out of the blue and we need to look carefully at what triggers these, so we do things differently," she told a news conference Thursday.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said she had raised concerns with the B.C. government prior to the incident about the operator of the facility where the boy was in care, but she cannot launch a full investigation into the specific case until other reviews are dealt with.
She will look at whether staff in these mostly privatized facilities are properly trained to handle their high-risk, high-needs clients, and whether ministry standards for care are being followed. On average, there are 800 children and youth in such care homes in B.C.
The 11-year-old boy was tasered on April 7. He is believed to be the youngest person to have been jolted by an RCMP taser. The RCMP were responding to a 911 call about a 37-year-old staff member at a residential facility being stabbed.
Taborview Programs, which manages the facility where the incident took place, has contracts with the province to provide 26 beds in Prince George and Cranbrook for children in care. The agency did not return phone calls on Thursday.
Mary McNeil, B.C.'s Minister for Children and Family Development, said she was surprised to learn that group homes are relying on police to help with non-criminal conflicts, including children not wanting to go to their bedrooms.
"I'm totally with her on this, this is troubling to me," the minister told reporters. Ms. McNeil said her own ministry has sent an expert in child behaviour to review the Prince George taser incident, and that probe will look at the safety of the other children in the care of Taborview Programs. "We expect all of our contractors to have the proper education and training. If that is not happening, it's not on. … If we have to remove the children, we will."
However, Ms. McNeil said the situation with the boy in Prince George is complex. "There is a challenge with recruitment in getting people with this kind of expertise. The 11-year-old was in an individual facility, with two people watching over him – now three. That's pretty good supervision. It speaks to the challenges that individual boy had."
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said police, trained in use of force, should not be the first line of response to deal with children in government care who are misbehaving. "If police are engaged by caregivers to use force on a child in early development stages – 10, 11, 12 years old – it can have a harmful impact on the child."
She said she does not yet have precise figures for the frequency of such calls, but noted that she raised the issue of policing and care homes three years ago. "I have seen numerous incidents of … [a group home]placing a phone call to police to attend to the residence to address behavioural or other issues, not criminal issues."
Maurine Karagianis, the opposition critic for children and families, said the province has cut back on funding support services that would have helped group homes deal with challenging behaviour. "It would seem now we may have reached a breaking point," she told reporters. "It seems to me inappropriate the RCMP are being used as a resource like this."