Stephen Samis, deputy minister of heath, centre, flanked by Health Minister Pauline Frost, right, and Public Service Commissioner Tom Ullyett, talks to media Sept 6 after Frost read a formal apology in relation to the mismanagement of youth in group homes (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Health minister apologizes for mistreatment of youth in group homes

Beyond the apologies, the department says it has acted on recommendations in investigator’s report

The Yukon’s health minister has apologized to youth who were mistreated in government-run group homes.

Minister Pauline Frost offered the apology Sept. 6 after an outside investigation into the branch that runs group homes backed up some of the claims that have been made by youth in government care.

“These incidents occurred during a breaking point in a system that has been fundamentally flawed for decades,” Frost said.

“To the youth who were mistreated, I apologize. The Government of Yukon was responsible for you and we let you down.”

Frost ordered the investigation in May and retained Pamela Costanzo, a lawyer and investigator from British Columbia.

Costanzo investigated five claims by youth that they were denied placement into group homes, locked out or unfairly evicted on a short timeframe between the end of 2016 and early 2018, according to a summary.

The sixth allegation, was that managers at Health and Social Services “ignored” or “covered up” complaints.

Two claims are substantiated with merit, Costanzo found, the rest — allegations of mistreatment and the cover up — were not.

“In respect of the five allegations relating to specific youth, I found that one allegation of mistreatment of a youth was supported, in breach of law and HSS policy,” Costanzo wrote. “I also found that director failed to properly investigate one incident.”

Frost said that department managers and staff are “being held to account for mistakes within the department that brought us to where we are today,” and that most of the staff members responsible for the allegations that were found to have merit no longer work for government. Officials did not expand on what exactly was done to hold those staff members “to account.”

Brenda Lee Doyle, the department’s now former assistant deputy minister has resigned, said Stephen Samis, deputy minister of the department. Samis would not say what specific allegations led to her resignation.

The two incidents that Costanzo found to have merit occurred in winter 2016. Frost said the department lacked housing at the time for the number of youth in need of it.

“The crisis was further elevated by foster parents retiring out of the system and large sibling groups requiring group placements,” she said. “It was a time of chaos and short-term solutions. It has been described to me as the perfect storm,” adding that the result of which saw two youth fail to receive adequate care.

One of those youth, in November 2016, was instructed to leave in order to make way for another client, “and did not receive the support of a transition plan,” she said.

“In December of 2016, a second youth was denied entry to his home and this concerning incident was not reported through the management chain properly,” Frost said.

That the department doesn’t “always get it right” was a statement reiterated by Samis, twice.

The government originally denied the allegations. Frost now admits that she and Samis were provided with “inaccurate information.”

“Last spring, we acted and responded to allegations without all the information we needed and in so doing, caused unnecessary stress to these already vulnerable youth. For that I apologize,” Samis said.

Samis noted that “serious problems,” characterized as a departmental “crisis” had been growing for two years, starting in 2014.

The main priority is to keep children and youth with family and out of care, he said.

Frost said that the majority of children in care are Indigenous — more than 70 per cent of them.

The “paradigm has shifted,” Samis said, noting that, in this respect, there was a 44 per cent deduction of youth and children in care over a two-year period.

Costanzo made six recommendations, all of which the Samis said the government has “actioned.”

The recommendations are that:

– The department seek legal advice and consider apologizing to a youth for a public misstatement;

– That one of the supposed allegations be reviewed, potentially by an external team, “to identify any systemic issues, to identify any supports needed for staff involved in the incident, and to determine whether actions related to accountability are required,” according to the report.

– That there be training for workers to make sure they understand the complaints processes and their obligations;

– That, as part of reconciliation and reparation with a youth, their experiences be documented;

– That there be changes to how documents related to youth in care are kept; and

– That there be change to the reporting structures.

Frost said her department has has rolled out improvements — current and ongoing — for group homes, including purchasing a residence in Porter Creek , hiring an evening supervisor and ensuring that a list of alternate housing options are explored first before using group homes.

“I am here to apologize and say under our government the days of overcrowded group homes are over,” she said.

“Our government will not let the system return to the state of stress and overload that existed in 2016 and brought us to where we are today.”

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

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