TORONTO – Ontario is promising to improve standards of care for nearly 16,000 young people in foster and group homes, youth justice facilities and mental health residential treatment following a scathing report from an expert panel.
The report focuses on a scattered system with no common standards of care for the children or set qualifications for staff who look after them in institutions that “need significant security controls” because of gangs and peer-to-peer violence.
“There is an urgent need to address the existing and longstanding challenges in the current model of residential service delivery,” concludes the government-appointed panel. “Change has been very slow. It is time to shift gears.”
The experts say there are significant variations in the use of secure isolation or solitary confinement at youth justice facilities, and warns the government will have to make a sustained effort to mitigate its impact and develop alternatives.
The panel complains about “unco-ordinated oversight” of a system that has grown to more than 600 different agencies and operators, including 47 Children’s Aid Societies and a mix of for profit and non-profit service providers.
It concludes “the current system has evolved without much oversight, accountability or incentives to consistently focus on quality of care considerations and the every day experiences of young people living in out-of-home care.”
“Young people identified as having complex special needs are particularly voiceless and clearly vulnerable in Ontario’s residential services system.”
There have been previous reports raising similar issues and concerns, but Children and Youth Services Minister Tracy MacCharles insists this time will be different.
“I have been increasingly concerned about the lack of those (young people’s) voices,” she said in an interview.
“My sense is there seems to be broad based consensus now that standards can and should be raised for all children and youth in foster homes, group homes, and open and closed youth-custody facilities.”
But MacCharles would not commit to the first of the report’s 33 recommendations, to create a Quality of Residential Care Branch within her ministry to provide governance, oversight and accountability for all child protection services.
“I’ve asked the ministry to develop an action plan to each and every recommendation, which will be part of a blueprint for reform,” she said.
“We need very robust standards and reporting requirements to aid in transparency and accountability.”
The report, “Because Young People Matter,” said the lack of oversight means service providers can claim to be doing things they aren’t actually doing for youth in their care.
“Also concerning is the incongruence between what organizations say they do and what is observable at the level of everyday experience,” said the authors, Kiaras Gharabaghi of Ryerson University, Nico Trocme of McGill University and former deputy minister Deborah Newman.
There is virtually no co-ordination of care as children age and need different levels of support, they warned.
“They do not provide seamless and integrated care to a child as they access the range of services they need over the course of their childhood and adolescence,” said the report.
“The siloing of services from a sectoral perspective make the system hard to navigate for young people, their families and even placement agencies.”
The report said many service providers and community organizations expressed concerns about the over-representation of First Nations, Metis, and Inuit young people in residential care, especially in the child welfare and youth justice sectors.
The authors called on government to be “relentless” in implementing the recommendations and keep in mind that “the lives of young people” are at stake.
“Residential services in Ontario will improve when caring adults engage in a meaningful partnership with young people themselves,” they added.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union said the expert panel’s report has the potential to raise the standard of care for children and youth in care of the province, but only if the government acts on the recommendations.
“I think most Ontarians would be shocked to know that obtaining a license to provide a residential service does not come with a requirement to meet a high standard of care,” OPSEU’s Deb Gordon said in a release.
“If government doesn’t spell out expectations for success in residential services, it has no way to track how vulnerable youth are doing at even the most basic level.”