A B.C. child-welfare watchdog says social workers are relying on a "geographic fix" to address sexual violence against children and youth in care, at times simply shuffling the perpetrator or victim to another placement – including some instances where the abuser went on to reoffend.
Perpetrators or victims were moved in 15 of the 145 incidents chronicled in a report on sexual violence in care, said B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth. She delved deeper into the cases a day after the review exposed a failing, ad hoc approach to addressing sexual violence in the child-welfare system.
In most instances, Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said, only "nominal effort" was made to ensure the abuser – in some cases another foster child – did not have continued access to vulnerable children. She gave the example of a social worker telling the new foster family to basically "watch out."
"I think what has happened is [the perpetrators] have been subjected to sexual victimization prior to coming into care, and they have not been well-assessed to understand the propensity or risk of either further victimization or victimization against others," Ms. Turpel-Lafond said. "We should assess and prevent, not take into care and shuffle along."
The report, released Tuesday, found indigenous girls were as much as four times more likely to be victims of sexual violence than non-indigenous girls. It also revealed instances where foster parents perpetrated abuse, and where social workers did not report sexual violence to police.
The reaction has been swift. B.C. Justice Marion Buller, the chief commissioner of the recently launched national inquiry into Canada's missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, said the report will be studied as part of the independent inquiry.
"We will include the report in our research and give it the respect it deserves," she said on Wednesday. The province's Ministry of Child and Family Development said it will follow up on 12 cases included in the report to determine if staff broke rules by failing to report sexual-violence allegations to police. If major issues are uncovered, the social worker or social workers in question could be out of a job.
At the same time, the province is defending the practice of moving a child or youth to another care home, whether they were the perpetrator or victim of sexual violence. Deputy director of child welfare, Alex Scheiber, emphasized that the government has a responsibility to make sure that resources are in place to ensure that the move does not put other children at risk.
"Where it is determined that a child in a foster placement has been either a perpetrator in a sexual assault or a victim, we have to take action to immediately make sure it doesn't happen again, often separating the victim and the perpetrator," he said. "Of course, we have an obligation not to just shuffle them on to another place where they could revictimize or be the victim of a further assault."
That obligation, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said, is not being met. Of the 15 shuffles included in her report, roughly half involved moving the perpetrator. The perpetrators ranged in age from 12 to 17 years old, while the victims were between three and 18 years old. In three cases, the perpetrator was eventually charged with a sexual offence, Ms. Turpel-Lafond said. As for the remainder, little was done to ensure the safety of children or staff at the new placement, or to make sure abusers got treatment and support. In some cases, she said, the perpetrator reoffended.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said she was glad to hear that the ministry will go through each of the 12 cases where, according to her report, social workers did not disclose abuse to police.
Mr. Scheiber said the ministry must first determine if, in fact, police reports were not made. "If we can see no reason why a report wasn't made to police, and prudent action wasn't taken, we will follow up with the supervisor," he said. A social worker could lose his or her job if the ministry finds "major practice issues" in their conduct.
The union representing social workers in B.C. said Ms. Turpel-Lafond's report was shocking, but said its members do the best they can, given long-standing staff shortages.
"[The government has] clear guidelines, but we can't follow them all," said Doug Kinna, vice-president of the B.C. Government and Services Employees' Union. "You can have all the guidelines in the world but if you don't have enough staff, they can only do the best they can." He noted that group homes in B.C. are particularly difficult to monitor because the facilities are not credentialed and there is high turnover of staff due to low wages.
Ms. Turpel-Lafond said she is glad the national inquiry will examine her report, adding that she hopes jurisdictions across the country will provide the commissioners with the case information they need to understand the prevalence and nature of sexual violence in other child-welfare systems. Still, she emphasized that the province must do more to address sexual violence immediately, including as it relates to standards, training and the development of a network of child-advocacy centres that brings together police, social workers and cultural supports. "The recommendations I made need to be actioned now," she said.
The provincial Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux has said the government will review the report and consider whether there are ways to strengthen the system.