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Alex Gervais died in September, 2015, after he was placed in a hotel by child-welfare workers.

The province's use of contractors to provide residential resources for children in its care has edged up over the past four years, even though it's a far more expensive alternative than foster care, figures from the provincial Children's Ministry show.

B.C. spent more than $100-million in each of the past three years on 93 contracted agencies that provide services for children and youth in care, including care in group homes and emergency youth shelters.

That spending represents a relatively small percentage of the ministry's overall budget of about $1.5-billion.

In 2012, contractors provided 10 per cent of "bed days," but that edged up to 11 per cent in 2016.

That increase has occurred even though contracted care – at an estimated cost of $103,200 per child annually – is far more expensive than foster care, which rings in at $22,700 per child, per year.

The services provided by those contractors have come under scrutiny by the independent children's watchdog and could soon be the subject of another probe by B.C.'s auditor-general.

The government relies on expensive contractors due to a shortage of skilled foster parents, but one advocate says the B.C. Liberal government is finding itself in a treacherous position with unqualified child providers as a result of earlier cuts.

Ingrid Kastens, executive director of Pacific Community Resources Society, a non-profit that runs housing and support programs in the Lower Mainland, said B.C.'s network of certified contract-care providers was gutted by funding cuts to the Children's Ministry in the early 2000s.

She said her agency, for example, closed four group homes – each with four beds – it had formerly run under contract to the ministry.

"It's not as though the population of B.C., or the population of youth in B.C., has decreased over the intervening decade," Ms. Kastens said.

"The network of quality resources was decimated and hasn't been replicated."

Earlier this week, B.C.'s independent children's watchdog, Bernard Richard, strongly criticized the province for failing to help and protect Métis teen Alex Gervais, who died in September, 2015, after jumping from the window of a hotel.

The 19-year-old had been placed at the hotel by a Delegated Aboriginal Agency after the province cancelled the contract of a company that was running group homes, including one where Mr. Gervais used to live.

The ministry cancelled its contract with that provider, A Community Vision, over multiple issues, including – according to ministry documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request – "substance use, supervision concerns, unsanitary conditions, no food in the home, and caregivers having weapons in the home."

"[Ministry of Children and Family Development] eventually terminated all of its contracts with the residential agency that had cared for Alex. But not before Alex and others were subject to highly questionable care and, likely, much worse," Mr. Richard said in his report.

In his report, Mr. Richard called on the province to "significantly enhance quality assurance, oversight and financial accountability for all contracted residential agencies."

Stephanie Cadieux, B.C.'s Minister of Children and Family Development (MCFD), has said the province accepts all of the report's recommendations and is working to "standardize contracting and increase its financial and practice oversight of homes run by contracted agencies."

Ms. Cadieux said the government would also welcome input from the B.C. Auditor-General's office, which last year flagged "oversight of contracted services for at-risk children and youth" as one of its future projects.

Currently, 699 children in government care are placed in housing run by 93 contracted residential agencies, the MCFD said.

That means contracted providers – and in turn, subcontracted caregivers hired by those agencies – account for a relatively small percentage of residential services provided by the ministry. The number of children and youth in government care has declined over the past few years; in 2016, the total was 7,010.

A 2012 review by the Federation of Community Social Services of B.C. and MCFD found contracted providers accounted for 13 per cent of residential placements, compared with 50 per cent for foster care and 17 per cent for "kinship care," which involves placing children with extended family.

That report – to which Mr. Richard referred to in his investigation into Mr. Gervais's death – included recommendations to enhance accountability in residential care.

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