The Department of Health and Social Services says it’s collecting all incident reports from government-run group homes over the last three years to review how situations have been handled.
Deputy minister Stephen Samis said he believes a youth who said he was locked out of his group home in the middle of winter, but Samis won’t say whether any staff have been punished for their actions.
A press conference April 13 was the first time government officials, other than elected ministers, have spoken about concerns raised about the treatment of children in the Yukon government system.
Many of the concerns have been raised by anonymous whistleblowers who worry that speaking publicly could cost them their jobs. Others have gone on the record.
Earlier this month, CBC reported that a senior manager within the department was let go after raising concerns about youth who have asked to be in government care.
According to the CBC, the manager alleged in an email that one youth, who is a permanent ward of the government, was denied a bed in government care before she revealed she was feeling unsafe and a bed was found.
“Under no circumstances would that child be turned away,” Samis said. “We have a duty to look after that child. I know the details of that situation, I can’t speak about it in any detail, but I can tell you that did not occur.”
Leeann Kayseas, acting manager of family services, denied “high risk” youth were being denied or made to wait for placements, something else that CBC says was alleged in the email.
She said youth are “never” turned away because they are considered too high risk.
In some cases youth might be considered for programs other than a group home.
“It’s our duty to work with that child … and our preference would be, wherever we can to enable that child to stay in their community and to stay with their family or an extended family arrangement,” Samis said. “That’s what our focus is.”
Youth have also spoken to the CBC alleging they were locked out of their group home. One said he was forced to sleep in a bank vestibule.
Samis said that goes against the department’s “policy.”
“I didn’t say it never happens, I said we would not do that. By policy we would not do that. By practice we would not do that. I have to believe those youth that this happened to them.”
He refused to say whether anyone with the department was punished for violating its own policy.
Following question period April 17, Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost also refused to give any details about whether staff had been punished for breaking department policy. She said concerns are dealt with through a process established by the public service commission and she would not reveal confidential human resources issues.
“I would not say that we punish our staff, I would say that we look at policy improvements. We look at improvements around our case management systems and our processes,” she said.
“If we have staff that are implementing policies that are not being followed through on then we will ensure that we address those situations as they come to our attention.”
Samis said youth who believe they have been wronged can contact their social worker, the department or the RCMP.
Steve Geick, the president of the Yukon Employees Union, said the government’s assurances that staff in group homes never work alone goes against what he is hearing from members.
“That may be their policy but that is definitely not what I am hearing is their practice,” he said.
Geick said he’s heard from employees who have worked eight and 12 hour shifts alone.
“They might send somebody in for a period of an hour or two when you’re trying to get the kids off to bed or something like that,” he said.
“Well that’s helpful, but kids wake up. Just because they’re all tucked in, nice and quiet doesn’t mean that the whole night is going to go like that.”
Geick said from what he’s heard from a few individuals that there has been an increase in the amount of times people are working alone on nights and weekends.
Samis said it is department policy that staff are never left alone. Kayseas said there is a minimum of two staff in every group home, depending on the needs of the youth, with a ratio of one staffer for every four youth.
“That said, a youth may sometimes leave the house and if we are trying to find that youth or encourage them to come back to the house then staff have to go out,” Samis said.
“Sometimes they have to go out to look after the youth. That would be the only circumstance, that something has happened.… We also will wait and bring reinforcements in, we have auxiliary staff who are on call.”
There are currently 20 children living in the Yukon’s six group homes. That’s down from 36 this time last year. The government says the dropping numbers are due to more extended family care agreements or foster placements within a youth’s home community.
Samis said the government’s internal review will look at every incident report over the last three years.
“We’re going through those incident reports to see what was the incident, how did we follow up and what was the outcome. Then categorizing all those reports by theme so that we can get a better sense of what kind of incidents have been reported, how have they been dealt with and where do we need to do things differently.”
He said he wasn’t sure whether the report would be made public but promised “some public information.”
Meanwhile the Yukon’s Child and Youth Advocate will also be completing her own review. Most of the details of that have not been made public yet.
Stamis said he has visited all six of the Yukon’s group homes, met with staff and left behind his business card.
“I want to make sure that if staff do have concerns, that I can hear them.”
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org