VANCOUVER — British Columbia's children's representative says the province is failing to adequately screen or oversee contractors who operate group homes, exposing vulnerable young people to unacceptable risk and harm.
Bernard Richard has released a letter he sent to Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy in which he describes his "grave concerns" about contracted residential homes 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.
Richard would not name the residential agency due to concerns about identifying youth in care, whose identities are protected by B.C. law.
He wrote that an investigation by the ministry found only 10 of 33 staff and caregivers were cleared as risk-free by criminal record checks and other security screening criteria.
Nine of the workers have been barred from similar work 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 youth 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 overall have been forced to move out of contracted 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.
Minister Katrine Conroy said in a statement that the representative's letter rightly outlined a number of flaws in the system.
Effective immediately, no new contracted 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 placed in contracted homes.
As part of the review, the ministry will develop a new approval process for placing any child or youth in a contracted group home, she said.
"This is a problem the previous government grappled with, and it's one that I, as minister, have been concerned with and will not allow to continue," she said. "Previously, change was aimed at simply improving the status quo. What we need to do is completely overhaul that system."
Richard questioned why the ministry hadn't addressed the problems with contracted group homes sooner and whether he could trust the government 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 see. 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."
— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press
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