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British Columbia is failing to adequately screen staff caring for children and youth inside group homes, exposing vulnerable young people to unacceptable risk and harm, says the province’s representative for children.
Bernard Richard has released a letter he sent to Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy in which he described his “grave concerns” about contracted residential resources for children and youth in care.
“The time has come to express in very strong words that the ministry is failing in its very important responsibility to the most vulnerable children in British Columbia,” Richard said in an interview.
He wrote in the letter that he was shocked to learn that 18 children and youth recently had to be relocated from a Lower Mainland residential agency because a youth claimed a staff member was gang-affiliated, took youth on drug drops, smoked marijuana with them and offered them cocaine. Neither Richard nor the ministry would name the residential agency due to concerns about identifying youth in care, which is banned under B.C. law.
An investigation by the ministry found only 10 of 33 staff and caregivers at the agency were cleared as risk-free by criminal record checks and other security screening, Richard wrote in the letter. Nine of the workers have since been barred from similar jobs for life, while 13 others are being further screened due to “concerning information,” he wrote.
Sadly, Richard wrote, the incident is not an isolated one. A report by his office in 2017 detailed the tragic death two years earlier of a youth who committed suicide after being placed in a hotel with little in the way of supervision and supports. The ministry had moved the teenager to the hotel after it closed the residential agency where he lived due to problems including inadequate screening of staff, Richard wrote.
In July 2016, the ministry investigated allegations of inappropriate care at another contracted Lower Mainland residential agency. The investigation also found poor qualifications and lack of completed background checks, according to Richard’s letter.
More than 70 kids have been forced to move out of group homes in the past three years, Richard said in the interview.
“The group homes are the placement of last resort and they require caregivers who can actually support very vulnerable children and not the kind of behaviour that we’ve seen again and again,” he said.
Following Richard’s 2017 report, the ministry created a centralized screening hub to review the backgrounds of all staff working at group homes in the province. Nearly half of B.C.’s 96 residential agencies have yet to screen their staff through this hub, Richard said.
Minister Katrine Conroy said she was surprised by the statistic.
“It’s unacceptable,” she told reporters in Victoria. “We need to ensure that anybody who is working with youth has the proper credentials and the proper checks in place. ... That has to happen and it will happen.”
Effective immediately, no new residential agencies will be opened without the approval of a senior ministry official, she said, and the ministry will review the circumstances of the more than 800 children and youth currently living in group homes. As part of the review, the ministry will develop a new approval process for placing any child or youth in a group home, she said.
“I agree with (Richard) that we need to do a better job,” she said. “I think what people have tried to do is correct the status quo, and I think what we have to do is overhaul the system.”
Richard questioned why the government hadn’t addressed his concerns about group homes sooner and whether he could trust it to follow through. He offered to work with the ministry a year and a half ago on this issue and it refused, he said.
“We’ll monitor what they actually do. I’d rather measure them on outcomes than on promises,” he said. “I’ve learned too many times the promises only go so far.”
The ministry hasn’t put enough resources into the system for a long time, said Rick FitzZaland of the Federation of Community Services, which represents dozens of organizations that provide multiple services including residential care to youth. There aren’t enough foster parents or good-quality group homes, so desperate social workers end up placing children in inadequate and inappropriate residential facilities, he said.
“The answer isn’t just to close those, which needs to be done,” he said. “The answer is to build an adequately resourced, professional appropriate system of care for the children who need that care. And they have not done that.”
By Laura Kane
12 June 2018