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Up to 10 youth with experience in Ontario’s child welfare system will be invited to inform a panel of experts probing the deaths of 11 young people in residential care over the past three years.
Young people will play a key role in determining how to prevent more youths from dying while in the care of group homes and foster homes.
Ontario’s chief coroner, Dirk Huyer, is putting together a team of up to 10 youths with experience in the child protection and mental health systems to inform a panel of experts probing the deaths of 11 young people in residential care over the past three years.
At least half of the youths will come from Indigenous communities in northwestern Ontario, he said.
“Hearing from young people just makes good sense,” said Huyer, who will be accepting youth participants recruited by First Nations and the Ontario Child Advocate’s office. “For me it is a valuable information source.”
The provincial child advocate, Irwin Elman, applauded the participation of youth in the review, noting their voices are vital to any serious reform of the child protection system.
“There is wisdom that comes with their lived experience,” he said.
While supportive of the review, Elman and Indigenous leaders continue to call for a full inquest into the deaths. They say a formal inquest is a more open and transparent way to focus on needed changes.
“The jury is out to see how this (review) will help and honour the children,” he said. Huyer doesn’t rule out holding an inquest in the future.
One of the youths whose time in care is being investigated is Kassy Finbow. She died along with her caregiver in a group home fire last February near Lindsay, Ont. The group home resident who set the fire has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and will be sentenced on Feb. 13.
“I did speak to the coroner’s office and my daughter is the 11th child (being reviewed),” said Kassy’s mother, Chantal Finbow, in an email.
Another youth, whose death was investigated by the Star, is also part of the review. Justin Sangiuliano, 17, died after being physically restrained by a caregiver in an Oshawa group home in April 2015.
“Yes, we have been contacted and Justin’s death is one of the 11,” said his sister Zabrina.
The only youth who has been publicly named in the review is Azraya Ackabee-Kokopenace, 14, from Grassy Narrows First Nation. She was found dead in a wooded area two days after she was released from a hospital in Kenora, Ont., last April. Huyer would not reveal the other names due to privacy provisions in the Coroner’s Act.
The coroner’s review, announced in November, comes on the heels of a Star investigation into the Lindsay-area fire, as well as Star stories about a rash of suicides and unexplained deaths of Indigenous youths in residential care.
Indigenous children are commonly sent as far as 2,000 kilometres away from their homes because of a lack of resources in the North. Seven of the 11 youths in the review, who died between January 2014 and July 2017, were Indigenous.
All of the youths suffered from mental health challenges and seven of them died by suicide. One, Kassy Finbow, was the victim of manslaughter. The causes of death for the other three youths remain unknown.
The review includes a look at whether children are being warehoused in group homes because there aren’t enough therapeutic placements. It will also examine the lack of training and qualifications of group home staff and whether children’s aid societies and the Ministry of Children and Youth Services are providing adequate oversight.
In addition, it will look at how the deceased children came into care, the number of times they were moved among foster families and group homes and the quality of care they received. Consultations for the review will include First Nations communities and the children’s biological families.
Huyer says he will compare his findings to sweeping changes being proposed by the Children’s Ministry over the next eight years.
Last July, a ministry reform blueprint promised to set minimum standards of care, review the qualifications of caregivers, update fire codes, develop a way to better monitor and keep track of children in care, reduce the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous children in care, and beef up data collection, oversight and accountability.
If the coroner’s panel of seven experts concludes the ministry’s blueprint doesn’t go far enough, Huyer said his report will focus on the extra changes needed. The report will be released in late spring or summer this year.
The Star’s ongoing investigation has revealed a child protection system that doesn’t know if minimal standards of care are being met, has no qualifications for caregivers and is governed by a Children’s Ministry scrambling to perform its oversight role.
The province does not know how many children are being cared for in its 389 licenced group homes. Children taken from abusive or neglectful parents are usually placed in group homes as a last resort, when foster parents can’t deal with them. Most are treated with psychotropic drugs and are left largely in the care of workers who typically earn around the minimum wage, with no benefits.
In a 2016 report, a government-appointed panel of experts lambasted a system in which the lowest-paid, least qualified staff work with kids with the highest needs. The kids suffer from the trauma of abuse and abandonment, compounded by psychiatric and developmental disabilities.
By Laurie Monsebraaten and Sandro Contenta
6 February 2018