Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is B.C.'s Representative For Children and Youth. Her latest report titled 'Who cares?' is critical of the province's handing of children in care with complex needs.

B.C. urged to end ‘shadow system’ of substandard foster care

New call for government action from children's representative Turpel-Lafond

B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth has issued yet another stinging rebuke to the province for allowing substandard conditions in 31 cases where youths in care ended up critically harmed or dead.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond latest review of children in care focuses on those with complex medical, psychological or behavioural needs and paints a tragic portrait of a system she says is “in disarray” because of government’s failure to fund an adequate model.

“We’re compounding their challenges by isolating them and giving them this kind of substandard treatment,” she told reporters Wednesday.

One youth dubbed Dean came from a violent, unstable family and mentally ill mother who considered killing him, according to the new report.

He was diagnosed with various behavioural disorders and hospitalized for self-harm before entering government care and being placed in a foster home at age 15.

The foster father didn’t want his own kids exposed to Dean so the youth was kept in a separate rental home that the dad staffed with workers he met through Narcotics Anonymous or the local coffee shop, with no criminal record checks conducted.

One night worker turned out to be a sex offender who abused the boy, Turpel-Lafond said, calling it an example of a “shadow system of care” where kids who need the most attention are cast aside.

“When we put the neediest kids in these ad hoc group homes that are one-offs where someone can hire someone from the Starbucks lineup or from their Narcotics Anonymous group to care for a child, that’s not good care.”

It’s particularly troubling the province knew of that care plan and agreed to it, Turpel-Lafond added.

Of the cases reviewed, seven children were sexually assaulted, eight were physically assaulted, while others were suicidal, had drug overdoses or self-inflicted injuries. Two died.

She noted the Ministry of Children and Family Development continues to use hotels in all regions of the province to house some children in care who have not been placed elsewhere.

“You basically go to sleep in a hotel with one worker and wake up with another worker,” said Turpel-Lafond, who wants the province to disclose each time hotels are used.

“Sometimes the kids sleep overnight in the after hours office [of the ministry], which isn’t even as good as a hotel – they’re sleeping in an office.”

Her chief recommendation is the province stop putting children with complex needs in inappropriate placements and that new residential services be created that aim for a loving family-style environment, not institutionalization.

Letting at-risk kids drift toward poverty, homelessness, jail, abuse and untreated mental illness is much more costly than a comprehensive, fully funded and properly supported residential care system, she said.

She’s also urging a hybrid approach of shared guardianship that lets parents and other family continue to participate in the upbringing of a child who must be in government care.

Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux issued a statement saying the review doesn’t reflect her ministry’s latest improvements, including the new six-bed Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre in Burnaby.

Cadieux called Turpel-Lafond’s proposed three-month timeline for action “unrealistic” because the ministry is tackling other priorities, including the hiring of 200 more front-line child protection staff.

Turpel-Lafond said the government has had adequate time to act – it’s been nearly two years since she issued similar recommendations after an 11-year-old boy with complex needs was tasered by police.

“I’m certainly not happy that I continue to see children in this state,” she said. “They need to get on this.”

Of B.C.’s nearly 9,000 children and teens in care, 1,300 have complex needs and nearly 900 of them are in contracted placements that often have inadequate oversight.

Who Cares? B.C. Children with Complex Medical, Psychological and Developmental Needs and their Families Des…

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