The unexpectedly high number of children in government care placed in hotels – mostly in the Lower Mainland – reflects an overburdened system in which more appropriate placements, such as group homes or foster care, are difficult to find, say some people who work with vulnerable youth.
"Of course, you never want to place kids in hotels – but what if you've got that midnight removal [of a child, due to safety concerns], there's no family to come forward … sometimes you may have no choice," William Yoachim, executive director of Kw'umut Lelum Child and Family Services, said on Thursday.
To avoid that scenario, Kw'umut Lelum runs two, six-bed group homes and tries to keep one bed free in each house for potential midnight moves. It does so by finding alternative places as soon as possible. That means the agency loses out on provincial funds that would be available if those beds were filled, but it adopted that approach because the community believes children should be kept close to their families and hotel placements avoided, Mr. Yoachim said.
Workers at other delegated aboriginal agencies – Kw'umut Lelem is one of 22 in B.C. – or ministry offices may not have such an option. In the system, children can be placed in a variety of housing, with the categories ranging from shelters to group homes to foster care.
"On any given day, if everything is aligned, there might be one option in each of the [categories] of support," said Michelle Fortin, executive director of Watari Counselling and Support Services Society, a group that provides counselling and other services to youth in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
The challenge of arranging appropriate residential placements for children in care – a theme in several reports by B.C.'s Children and Youth representative, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, over the past few years – was underscored on Wednesday with the release of a report that found 117 children in government care had been placed in hotels from November, 2014, to October, 2015.
The report, a joint effort by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) and Ms. Turpel-Lafond, revealed the number of children being placed in hotels was about five times higher than an estimate provided by the ministry last year, when hotel stays came under scrutiny after the death of Alex Gervais.
Mr. Gervais, 18, died in September, 2015, after falling from the fourth-floor window of the Abbotsford hotel where he had been living without the ministry's knowledge – despite a 2014 directive that any hotel placements had to be cleared by MCFD. His death is under investigation.
The report raised questions about not only the use of hotels but the ministry's ability to track information. Children placed in hotels comprise about 2 per cent of the ministry's overall caseload.
"It's disturbing that there are that many children in hotels – it's also disturbing that the ministry didn't have a handle on it," said Judy McGuire, a director of the RayCam Co-operative Community Centre, which provides childcare and other services in the Downtown Eastside.
The lack of solid information on hotel stays appears to have been the result of oversights and miscommunication.
According to the report, the ministry has had the ability to track hotel stays on its electronic databases since 1996. But the ministry did not issue clear directions or a policy that required hotel stays to be tracked.
In response to an inquiry by The Globe and Mail in October, 2014, the ministry said it did not track data on hotel stays "because the placement of children and youth in care in hotels is rare and only for brief periods of time (i.e. not statistically significant)."
In November, 2014, however, the ministry issued a directive that hotel placements had to be reported and had to be approved by a designated director.
In September, 2015, in response to questions after Mr. Gervais's death, the ministry said 23 children had been placed in hotels since November.
That number was based on the best data available at the time, but in gathering information to confirm it, it became clear no system was in place to verify what had been reported, a ministry employee said on Thursday in an e-mail.
Under updated policies, hotel placements will have to be approved by directors and recorded in the ministry's system. A public update will be provided every six months.