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William Yoachim of Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services in Nanaimo, fears needed facilities won’t get off the ground.Aaron Hinks/The Globe and Mail

In April, 2010, government officials and native leaders gathered for the grand opening of the Stehiyaq Healing and Wellness Village, about 100 kilometres southeast of Vancouver on the Chilliwack River. The former youth corrections camp had been transformed into a place that was to blend the healing practices of elders with modern medicine to help patients overcome trauma, addiction and mental illness.

It didn't turn out that way. By September, 2011 – not two years after it opened, backed with about $5-million in government support – Stehiyaq was closed.

In its short life as a healing centre for aboriginal youth, Stehiyaq accepted 15 clients, although it had capacity for nearly 30 at a time. Now the centre is again linked to the justice system, as a halfway house for adult men. The bands that took out a loan to renovate the facility are still paying off the debt. And a former part-time youth worker is to go on trial in Chilliwack in March for the alleged sexual assault of a young woman sent to the centre for care.

The centre's failure is part of a national problem: child welfare regimes with a disproportionate number of native children in care.

According to the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, there are three times more First Nations children in child welfare care now than there were at the height of the residential school system, and First Nations children are six to eight times more likely to go into child welfare than non-aboriginal children.

"I am disappointed. I am frustrated. I am angry," William Yoachim, the executive director of Kw'umut Lelum Child and Family Services, said in a recent interview in his Nanaimo office. Kw'umut Lelum was one of a handful of delegated agencies – native child-care groups approved by the province to provide child welfare services – that placed a girl in Stehiyaq healing centre while it was open.

Now Mr. Yoachim worries the Stehiyaq failure will make it more difficult for such a centre to get off the ground, even though he and others say there is a need for such facilities.

"There is a lack of places," said Mr. Yoachim, who in November won a seat on Nanaimo city council. "I don't want this to mean that there will be no opportunities like this in the future."

In a 2006 review of B.C.'s child protection system, Justice Ted Hughes noted that half of the children in care were aboriginal. The situation is about the same today, with aboriginal children accounting for about 50 per cent of the roughly 8,000 children in care, although aboriginal people make up about 5 per cent of the overall population.

For Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who in 2006 became B.C.'s first Representative for Children and Youth as a result of a recommendation from the Hughes report, the healing centre is part of a pattern of inadequate planning and oversight by the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The province "paid for and created a resource that operated with their funding and support that didn't function," she said. "It didn't come close to meeting the expectation that was stated, with a pretty significant upfront and ongoing investment. A child was injured or harmed there – whether there [turns out to be] criminal responsibility or not. And where's the learning?"

According to an indictment, Darren Justice has been charged with one count of touching a minor for a sexual purpose and one count of sexual assault, with the alleged incidents occurring between Aug. 1 and Aug. 30, 2011. Mr. Justice is scheduled to stand trial in March. Efforts to reach Mr. Justice have not been successful, but the Globe and Mail has confirmed he was a youth worker at the healing centre. The alleged victim's name is protected by a publication ban.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development says its contract with the centre ended on Sept. 30, 2011, along with any funding, and that the centre closed its doors the same day. The ministry says there is no connection between the alleged incidents and the end of its financial support for the centre. It declined comment on the specifics of any case involving a child due to privacy laws.

The idea for the centre came from elders and community leaders including Frank Malloway, a father, grandfather and Sto:lo Nation grand chief. Several youth suicides and families' struggles with alcohol and drug abuse meant there was a need for a residential facility where troubled young people could get treatment. "We thought what we need is a camp for teens at risk," Mr. Malloway said, speaking in a community longhouse about a week after he'd learned of a young relative's suicide.

"The reason we wanted this camp is try to work with our teens, the young people. It's harder today to be a teenager because there is so much bad stuff going around, and it's easy to get."

The concept seemed poetically just, as the riverside site had been home to a native village long before it became a youth corrections camp. Mr. Malloway and others began pushing the idea.

They found a receptive environment in Victoria. Then-premier Gordon Campbell had unveiled the New Relationship, which embraced the notions of aboriginal self-government and reconciliation, in 2005. In February, 2008, Stehiyaq was cited in the provincial Throne Speech as one of several initiatives that would strengthen that relationship.

The following month, the government announced the transfer of the 13.1-hectare riverside site, along with $3-million in funding, for the centre, which at the time was scheduled to open that October. By the time the centre opened in April 9, 2010, the province said it had provided close to $5-million in land and cash to that point and would contribute another $350,000 that year.

But nearly as soon as the centre opened its doors, a cycle of downsizing began, says Joe Hall, a Sto:lo grand chief and former president of the Stehiyaq Healing Society.

"The big problem was getting the beds filled on a constant basis," Mr. Hall said. "We were trying to find out whether we could get patients from Alberta, Yukon, the United States – there were just challenges for people to fill the beds and having the provincial government approve it."

The ministry, which has a $1.4-billion budget for 2014-2015, says it told the bands from the beginning that the province would not fund the centre indefinitely. The ministry emphasizes that most government officials or bureaucrats involved with the program are no longer with the ministry and that the province was a partner – not the initiator – of the healing centre.

"Unfortunately, despite many attempts, the program was unsuccessful in securing funding from additional sources and funding from the ministry was insufficient to pay for the program operating costs," the ministry said. "At the end of the day, the ministry needs to focus on investing in programs that best serve vulnerable children and youth. This often requires making tough decisions about where our resources should go."

Ms. Turpel-Lafond argues the province backed the centre without a long-term plan for supporting the bands involved. "I'm not saying the ministry sabotaged this, but they certainly didn't stand shoulder-to-shoulder to make this work," she said.

The centre is now one of seven facilities run by VisionQuest, a non-profit society with an abstinence-based philosophy.

On a crisp winter day, two clients were outdoors at the centre, waiting for an outreach worker to arrive in a truck to go chop wood, when a reporter stopped by to see the grounds. The men warmly greeted Mr. Malloway, who explained the reporter was looking into the centre's former role as a healing centre for troubled youth.

"Good idea," one of the men said. "Maybe if I'd had a place like that, I wouldn't have ended up here."