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Yukon’s youth advocate to conduct ‘systematic’ review of the territory’s group homes

Review follows CBC report alleging abuse by group home staff
Yukon’s child and youth advocate Annette King, seen in this 2014 file photo, says she’s at least a month away from having any details of the independent review of group homes the government announced earlier this week. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)

The Yukon’s child and youth advocate says she’s at least a month away from having any details of the independent review of group homes the government announced earlier this week.

Annette King said she hasn’t created the terms of reference, decided the full scope of what she is going to review, or set a timeline and budget yet.

The first public mention of the review came from the Yukon government less than two days before a CBC report aired on allegations of abuse at government group homes.

Reporter Nancy Thomson spoke to youth about violent fights involving government staff. One youth recounted being locked out of the group home and forced to sleep on the floor of a bank ATM.

Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost denied the review was because of the CBC story.

In the legislative assembly March 21 Frost said she met with a former group home client who had concerns “quite some time ago.” The department worked on the concerns “for a number of weeks ” and then reached out to the child and youth advocate, she said.

King said her office’s primary focus is on advocating for individuals but she can also do independent systemic reviews.

She said she’s heard concerns about group homes. The willingness of the government to participate and provide access is what led her to decided to do a review, she said.

“So it’s an opportunity to actually create systemic change when you have a co-operative department.”

King said her office needs help.

“What I really need is resources for long-term staffing. The office has evolved to the point now where I need more staff to address individual advocacy, never mind systemic (reviews).”

King said it’s possible she’ll have to ask the government for more money.

No one is saying if the report and recommendations will be made public. King said that’s something she’ll “consider.” Frost said it would be “premature” to say.

The child and youth advocate is supposed to be arm’s-length and independent from the government.

The government’s press release contained contact information for cabinet officials and the Health and Social Services Department but nothing for King herself.

King said she believes the integrity of her office is being upheld, “but I can also totally see how the perception may not be, and that’s a huge part of it.”

She’s doing the review using a section of legislation that allows her, not the government, to set the terms.

The review will cover from April 1, 2015, to April 1, 2018, according to the government.

King said she wants to go longer than that. She’s considering a range of topics including graduation rates and kids who age out of care, along with the treatment of children inside group homes. There will also be some way for members of the public to participate, she said.

King can order government officials to participate and provide documents but her office can only make recommendations, not force the government to follow through.

She also doesn’t have the investigative abilities that exist in other jurisdictions, she said.

“They can do a whole review of the whole child’s life, even if they’re still alive, you can do a full review of all the steps along the way and the different interventions.”

She said that’s something the Yukon government should consider.

Questions about group homes took up much of question period on March 21 and the entire question period the next day.

MLAs from both opposition parties pressed the government on what it was doing to protect children and why it hadn’t acted sooner.

On March 21 Premier Sandy Silver called the problem something he’s been aware of “as an opposition member in this house for years.”

If that’s true, NDP MLA Kate White asked the next day, why did the government not act sooner?

“We’re talking about abuse and discrimination of youth in government care, and the premier’s admission that he has known about this issue for years makes his government’s inaction even worse,” she said.

Frost said the government has taken “pretty significant” actions in health and social services during its 15 months in office.

Speaking to media on March 21, Frost told media she thinks the territory’s group homes are safe.

“We provide a safe environment, we respect the children and if there’s any concerns we have a process established and set up to allow for reviews to be triggered and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Frost encouraged anyone with concerns to come forward.

“I want to reach out to the children that are out there and the parents and the families that are out there and Yukoners to say that if there are concerns and you do hear of something let us know and we’ll trigger a reaction.”

Steve Geick, the president of the Yukon Employees Union, said the union has been raising concerns about work conditions in the group homes for years and has “gotten nowhere.”

Geick said he doesn’t condone the behaviour by group home staff, if it’s proven to be be true.

He said the “bigger question” is why staff would respond that way.

“I’m not trying to make excuses or anything but we’ve talked for years about inadequate training, understaffing. I don’t know if potentially they’re still having toddlers in the buildings with a mixed group, that kind of thing,” he said.

“It’s just very, very stressful and I think in any stressful profession.… When you are understaffed, undertrained, working by yourself and pushed to the limits, eventually you’re going to snap.”

Geick said he doesn’t put a lot of faith in the review. He said he’s suspicious of the timing and thinks an independent investigator from outside the territory should be brought in.

Geick said the union complained to the child and youth advocate office in the past about working conditions and how that impacts children and “to my knowledge they never did anything,” he said.

In response, King pointed to her lack of investigative powers.

“The union did not refer children and youth for advocacy. When people come to us with issues about children in general, outside of the primary role, we make referrals if appropriate and we record the issue so that we have the information to include in systemic reviews in the future,” she said in a follow-up email.

“Therefore, any concerns by the union in the past can be considered in my systemic review of group homes.”

Contact Ashley Joannou at