Julien Gignac/Yukon News Child and youth advocate Annette King at the legislative assembly building on April 25. King says more needs to be done to ensure youth and children who end up in group care maintain their ties to their culture and families.

Group care policies are available but they’re not being applied, says Yukon’s child advocate

‘Children have a right to maintain their culture when they’re in care’

More needs to be done to ensure youth and children who end up in group care maintain ties to their culture and families, according to a review by the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate, which delves into systemic issues within Yukon’s Family and Children’s Services branch.

“We’re quite surprised by the things that are in policy already that aren’t happening. Culture was a really big one,” said advocate Annette King, who released her report April 25 .

The review covers between 2015 and 2018 and concerns 94 children and youth who lived in group care. The majority of them — 79 per cent — identified as Indigenous, according to the review.

The Child and Family Services Act is grounded in international law, King said, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, specifically.

“Children have a right to maintain their culture when they’re in care. The legislation isn’t built to be as colonizing as the past is, but the reality, and lived experience of the kids, is that they’re still really living in a really colonized system, where their relationships to the people most important them are severed for the sake of being safe,” she said.

Legislation and policy need to be strengthened, according to the review. It says that “there are gaps between policy, practice and the lived experiences of children and youth.”

Findings are far reaching. They include a loss of cultural connection, staying in care for “lengthy periods of time,” lack of involvement in case planning and an unawareness of their rights.

Further, when youth age out of care at 19, they don’t have the skills required to live independently, the review says.

King said that some families don’t know their kids who are placed in care. Compounding this problem is that group care workers don’t have the authority to enable visits, she said.

“There has to be a whole other level to approve who can visit.

“There’s a fair bit of mistrust in the government’s systems from some of the family members, given their own histories,” said King, referring to traumas linked to colonialism — the legacy of residential schools and the ‘60s scoop, for instance.

Pauline Frost, minister of health and social services, said there have been many efforts of late to help solve problems within group homes, noting an independent report by Vancouver-based lawyer and investigator, Pamela Costanzo.

One allegation of mistreatment was supported, Costanzo wrote in a summary report. She also found that the director failed to investigate one incident.

“At the same, we worked with the (Public Interest Disclosure Commissioner) to provide supports around wrongdoings, so we did a lot of really good work in the department, and we also are currently reviewing the Child and Family Services Act, so one follows through in the other,” Frost said.

Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay determined last week that the department erred in evicting one youth from a group home in 2016, providing eight recommendations for the department to file an official response to.

Frost said that “a lot of the recommendations that were brought forward in the child and youth advocate report is really work that we’ve already completed. Now, keep in mind that this work goes back to 2015.”

Before she was elected to office, in other words.

“What is primarily behind all of this is that there’s elements of cultural practices and teachings that are not integrated into our system,” Frost said. “That is systemic, right? It goes way back in time, and we’re changing that. We’re changing that because we’ve bridged a huge gap and we’ve provided opportunities to engage with our partners.”

The average number of days spent in a group care was 440 days, according to the review.

The review notes that children as young as two years old have been placed in group care, an issue only permitted in exceptional circumstances.

It says the placing of very young children — 10 years old or younger — should be “critically reviewed.”

A section of the review that details the vision of First Nations people and families says that to fix the problem means, in part, starting over and re-allocating funds towards the family unit.

There are 31 recommendations. An initial response from the territorial government is expected by July 31, with two annual progress reports to follow afterwards every year.

Recommendations include supports that are culturally based for families “to address protection concerns for children and youth without removing children from their home,” increasing family visits, mandatory First Nations trauma training to staff working with youth and children and reviewing sibling placement policy.

The review says that roughly 27 per cent of siblings were placed together.

It’s also recommended that the Child and Family Services Act be amended in order to “extend eligibility to receive supports beyond 24 years of age. Developmental ages need to be considered for youth ageing out of group care.”

Asked what types of legislative changes King is calling for specifically, she said she will make a submission as part of a separate review that’s happening into the Child and Family Services Act.

“Before April 30, I will be,” she said. “I’ve asked that independent advisory committee to table my submission along with theirs. I’m working out a process to make those recommendations public.”

King would not comment on anything specific included in her submission.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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