Group home youth fall through government cracks

Her yelling reached down the block. Heads turned. The young girl kicked the dirt, sending pebbles flying with the expletives.

Her yelling reached down the block.

Heads turned.

The young girl kicked the dirt, sending pebbles flying with the expletives.

“I don’t understand what you’re frustrated with,” said the group-home worker, trying to calm her town.

“What has upset you?”

Across the street, a bunch of artists were painting a plywood structure.

One of them lives beside the Yukon Children’s Receiving Home.

“There’s always fights and constant yelling,” he said. (The neighbour wanted to remain anonymous.)

“Counsellors come out shouting, ‘Get back in that fucking house.’”

A young First Nations boy was sitting on the receiving home steps, fiddling with his skateboard.

“They treat you like dogs,” he said, walking across the street.

“It’s the way they talk to you.”

Sean is 16. (Not his real name.)

He’s been at the receiving home for several weeks.

Before that, he was homeless.

The receiving home is better than the Salvation Army shelter, he said.

“But it’s boring.

“It’s not like a home.”

Sean spends his days hanging out at the skate park, or sitting on the steps.

“Sometimes we go swimming,” he said.

“And there’s crafts.”

Sean’s probation officer sent him to the receiving home.

He hasn’t seen a counsellor since he’s been there.

Nobody asked him if he wanted to, he said.

There aren’t any counsellors or therapists running programs at the home.

“I would go if they did that,” said Sean.

Sean doesn’t get much one-on-one with the receiving home’s workers either.

“They don’t really sit down with us,” he said.

“Definitely not daily.”

It would be helpful if they did, he added.

The group homes are run like a bed and breakfast, said Bonnie Harpe, who worked there for more than six years.

“There are no treatment programs and the youth are given no guidance.”

The incidents of violence are at least as bad as they were six years ago, and the staff feels hopeless, she said.

“Kids always act out when there’s no feeling of security.

“If the staff have no support, the kids pick up on that and follow suit.

“That’s what’s happening right now.

“It’s chaos.”

From January to May, the RCMP was called 46 times about trouble at the receiving home, said NDP leader Todd Hardy during the last sitting.

Last year, in the same time period, the RCMP was called six times, he said.

The recent spike in calls does not mean the situation at the receiving home is worsening, said Nancy Duesener, manager of Child Assessment and Treatment Services.

It depends on the group of kids, she said.

“This year the number of calls has been up, but it’s on its way down.”

During her six years working at group homes, a day didn’t go by that Harpe wasn’t scared.

“You never knew what to expect,” she said.

Harpe was punched, spit on, kicked, hit with flying objects and shouted at regularly.

“You’d start worrying about things, like what if staff forgot to lock the knife drawer,” she said.

In May, a child at the receiving home allegedly assaulted a worker after a weapon was found in the youth’s room.

The employee called the RCMP and reported the incident.

“Weapons are always part of residential care,” said Duesener, who faced a girl with brass knuckle-busters when she first started working.

“If we suspect a child has a weapon, we do a complete search and the weapon is removed.”

Harpe worked one shift at the receiving home.

“I never went back,” she said.

“There’s all these blind corners — anything could happen.”

There’s been a huge turnover in staff, she said.

“It’s because they’re scared.”

Meghan Gusnowski is a caseworker at the receiving home.

Although she admits to being “concerned and anxious” on the job, there hasn’t been a time when Gusnowski and her co-workers couldn’t have handled the situation, she said.

“There’re kids in their mid-teens,” she said.

“So you’re seeing a lot of stuff.”

Recently, after four types of mould were found in the aging home, two staff took time off, said Duesener.

Whitehorse group homes are always in need of staff, she added, citing young workers who tend to come and go.

“But compared to the rest of the country we’re doing well retaining our staff.”

During the day, caseworkers share shifts with residential care workers.

At night, it’s just care workers on duty.

Caseworkers have a bachelor of social work, or an equivalent degree, said Duesener.

Care workers usually have pertinent diplomas or some experience working in the field.

There are no counsellors or therapists on staff.

If youth require counselling, they are referred to mental health services, the department of Education, alcohol and drug services, the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society and other agencies, said Duesener.

“But children have a right to say yes or no to counselling,” she said.

“And it’s not unusual for them to say no.”

If Whitehorse group homes ran structured counselling programs and had risk assessments done by therapists once or twice a week, it would greatly benefit youth, said Harpe.

“In all my years working there, I never saw kids go out for counselling, or see therapists,” she added.

Youth are offered a variety of programs, said Duesener.

“Some go to school and some attend programs at the Youth Achievement Centre.”

Open to everyone, achievement centre programs include woodworking, cooking, kayaking, camping and some psycho-education programs that address crime and drugs.

“We don’t turn anyone away,” said youth achievement supervisor Dale Cheeseman.

There are no counsellors or therapists employed at the achievement centre, he added.

Some youth staying at group homes go to school, and others don’t, said Harpe, remembering kids on her shift who slept all day.

“Others would disappear for days at a time.

“They’d say, ‘See you later,’ and there’s not much you can do about it.”

Staff members are run ragged, cooking, cleaning and filling out paperwork, said Harpe.

“So you have some staff who care and try to do treatment, but get frustrated because they end up being a housemaid.”

Gusnowski spends most of her day co-ordinating with the youths’ social workers.

And each shift, she fills out individual reports on every youth, and incident reports which address everything from kids being five minutes late for curfew to substance abuse or finding weapons in their rooms.

Gusnowski used to work in a group home where workers organized treatment sessions.

“We’d sit down with the youth for a couple of hours and talk about bullying, grieving, what to do with your life and all sorts of different things,” she said.

It was a staff initiative.

And it doesn’t happen at the receiving home.

“It takes time to build relationships with youth,” said Gusnowski.

Kids stay at the receiving home while they’re waiting for a foster home, or waiting for a place in treatment, said Duesener.

“Sometime they’re only there a night, or they can stay up to 90 days.”

But some youth are there for more than a year.

“It’s a holding pen,” said Harpe.