Stephen Samis, deputy health minister, centre, flanked by health minister Pauline Frost, right, and public service commissioner Tom Ullyett, talks to media after Frost read a formal apology in relation to the mismanagement of youths in group homes during a press conference in Whitehorse on Sept. 6, 2018.. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

EDITORIAL: Youth in group homes deserve transparency – and an RCMP investigation

The full report on mistreatment in Yukon government group homes needs to be handed over to the RCMP

Yukon: Where government employees get better protection than vulnerable children in care.

That’s likely too long a slogan for Travel Yukon’s next campaign but it’s certainly the image the Liberals risk projecting when it comes to the protection of children in government care.

After first denying reporting by the CBC’s Nancy Thomson about abuses in group homes, Health Minister Pauline Frost and other health officials stood up last week and apologized to youth who had been mistreated.

A report by B.C. lawyer Pam Costanzo, commissioned by the Yukon government, investigated six allegations by youth who said they were denied placement in group homes. That includes one who said they were evicted and one who said they were locked out overnight. The youth alleged the department ignored or covered up the complaints.

Costanzo’s investigation did not substantiate the cover-up claim but she found that two youth did not receive the care they should have.

In November 2016 a youth was told to leave his group home without being given any plan for what to do instead.

Two months later a second youth was denied entry into his home and the “concerning incident” was not reported properly, Frost said.

In Thomson’s reporting she has described a youth being forced to sleep in a bank foyer after being locked out at -25 C.

The public summary of Costanzo’s report lacks specifics about exactly what happened. There are no names or identifiable details in anything that has been released. That’s understandable. The youth who were mistreated by the government deserve to have complete control over when and how their stories come forward.

The youth deserve this protection. The adults who were in charge of their care and failed, do not.

Instead of giving direct and frank answers about who specifically violated the trust of these children and how those employees were punished, Frost and other officials mostly provided mealy-mouthed responses without specifics.

Not to worry, Frost said, “most” of the staff involved in the incidents confirmed by Costanzo no longer work for the government, as if that is somehow going to make everyone feel better.

There’s not a magic pill that absolves government employees of guilt and responsibility the day they leave. You don’t get to mistreat children – particularly those who are vulnerable and in government care – and then walk away untarnished because you no longer carry a government business card.

What happened to those employees who are still working for the government?

“Management and staff are being held to account for the repeated mistakes within the department that brought us to where we are today,” Frost said, again avoiding anything concrete.

And what about the unnamed employee who lied to the Minister of Health? Frost admits now that “inaccurate information was provided to myself and the deputy minister of health and social services.”

Surely lying to a minister is a fireable offense.

And yet, the word “fired” was not uttered in any of the prepared speeches that were part of the government’s mea culpa.

The only government employee mentioned by name was former assistant deputy minister for the department, Brenda Lee Doyle, who has resigned. No details were provided as to what specifically led to her resignation.

Elected officials, particularly those in the Yukon where so many of the electorate are government employees, often choke on the word “fired.”

But in this case Frost should have cleared her throat and laid out exactly how these employees were handled. If no one was fired, she should be ashamed.

Not mentioning any other employees by name or making it clear exactly how they were disciplined is insulting to the children who were mistreated.

Aside from proving that the department violated its own policies, Costanzo’s full report may contain evidence of crimes. Neglecting children is a crime. Abuse is a crime. The actions of government employees don’t become less criminal because they no longer work for the government.

The report should be handed over to the RCMP. Deputy minister Stephen Samis insisted the situations were not criminal matters but that’s not his call to make. It should not be up to anyone involved in the department to decide whether a crime has taken place.

The RCMP and the Yukon’s prosecutors are in a much better position to make that call.

The Liberals have ducked questions about RCMP involvement since early on. Back in April, Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee said Frost’s responsibility when she heard about potential abuses was to go to the department.

As to whether the police were involved, McPhee said that “cannot be confirmed or denied.”

For its part, Yukon RCMP won’t say whether it is investigating any allegations.

It seems reasonable that police would at least want to see Costanzo’s report to decide if the RCMP needs to do more. Even if the report doesn’t count as evidence on its own, it could point police in a direction to start a criminal investigation.

Speaking of court, any Yukon lawyers with some free time for pro-bono work might find clients who believe the government has violated its duty to care for children in group homes.

Frost has admitted her department was in “crisis” leading up to these incidents.

The “perfect storm” she describes included a lack of foster parents and a lack of beds. She’s not wrong. But now that the government knows about what happened, it has to take responsibility for what happens next.

The Liberals had a chance to be transparent, to prove to government employees, the children they’re responsible for, and the public at large, exactly where the line in the sand is and what happens when you cross it.

Now they have a chance to hand what they know over to the RCMP and prove that when you mistreat children, being a government employee won’t protect you from a potential criminal investigation.

Otherwise they risk falling back on to government tropes and showing these children that not much has changed at all.

(AJ)

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