An 18-year-old aboriginal youth who fell to his death from a fourth-floor hotel window last week had been in government care and placed in the budget hotel in contravention of B.C. policy.
Police have ruled out foul play in the death of Alex Gervais, who had been bounced through 17 placements in 10 years. His final placement was at the hotel, which the B.C. minister in charge said was against the rules.
"When this tragedy came to light, it was a surprise to us," Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Children and Family Development, said in an interview on Thursday. "We should have been notified and the ministry was not informed."
It also came as a surprise to B.C.'s children's watchdog, who says she was assured by the government that no kids in care were being housed in hotels.
In fact, the government's policy is that hotels are to be used only in rare occurrences, and for as briefly as possible, as a stop-gap measure while appropriate placements are found.
But after a flurry of phone calls and e-mails this week to agencies responsible for administering services to children in care around the province, the minister said she is now aware of at least one other child in care who is calling a hotel home.
The minister said her officials are now "reminding" social workers, including those at delegated aboriginal agencies, of the policy. Social workers who fail to meet the policy could lose their jobs.
Watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond raised concerns about Alex Gervais's safety earlier this year after he and 32 other youths were removed from a care home that was deemed unfit. The province cancelled its contract with the care provider, A Community Vision, and suspended a number of caregivers, saying it had lost confidence in the agency's ability to provide safe standards of care.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond was assured "absolutely no youth" would be dumped in hotels as a result of that move. "I am devastated," she said in an interview Thursday. "He was a young person who had a lot of pain and trauma in his life, and he was facing an adulthood without a lot of support."
She said the teen had minimal supervision at the hotel despite his complex needs, and was just eight months away from "aging out" of care – meaning he would lose much of the support he had received from the government, which had been responsible for him since he was eight years old. Mr. Gervais stayed at the hotel for more than six weeks.
"I'm confident there are more cases than this and I don't think this minister has a grasp," she said.
Ms. Cadieux said the transition plans for Mr. Gervais and the others who were pulled from the care home run by A Community Vision were reviewed by the provincial director of child welfare, and none of the plans listed hotel stays as an option.
The Manitoba government promised to stop using hotels as emergency placements for foster children as of June 1, as part of a commitment to improve its child welfare system. Those changes were prompted by the death of Tina Fontaine, an aboriginal teenager who was killed in August, 2014, after going missing from her hotel placement in Winnipeg.
Months after her death, the B.C. ministry responsible for child welfare issued a directive stating that hotel placements of children in care required the approval of a senior official.
John Horgan, leader of B.C.'s opposition NDP, said the ministry should have heeded the watchdog's warnings before it was too late. "The most troubling part about this story, beyond the tragic loss of life, is that Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond was given an explicit commitment that this [hotel placement] would not happen," he said. The opposition will raise the issue next week when the legislative session resumes, he said. "They say the policy was disregarded – but how many times? It cries out for a strong statement of leadership."
Ms. Cadieux said Mr. Gervais's case would be reviewed, but she maintained that the province's system of support for children in care is, in most cases, working well.
However, the ministry has been criticized in numerous reports for gaps in protecting children in care. The coroner's office has cited a lack of mental-health care for youth, and earlier this month Premier Christy Clark appointed a prominent First Nations leader, Grand Chief Ed John, to investigate why aboriginal children are grossly over-represented among children in government care.
As well, the RCMP are investigating the death of an aboriginal teenager identified as Paige who had died of an overdose in 2013, after enduring what Ms. Turpel-Lafond has described as a "broken system" of child welfare marked by persistent indifference from front-line government workers.