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Children’s advocate questions B.C.’s ability to overhaul foster-care system after death of Cree teen

December 12, 2022
The former government-run group home where Traevon Desjarlais-Chalifoux died in Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 18, 2020.

The Globe and Mail: B.C.’s independent Representative for Children and Youth is skeptical about the provincial government’s will or ability to successfully overhaul the foster-care system, saying a coroner’s inquest into the suicide of Cree teen Traevon Desjarlais-Chalifoux showed inadequacies flagged for more than a decade remained unaddressed while kids in care suffered.

Jennifer Charlesworth said she and her staff took 280 pages of notes while watching every hour of the eight days of testimony. She said she is reserving judgment as to whether the government can accomplish its stated goal and the top recommendation of the jurors: to ensure group homes are a last resort for placement of foster children and are no longer staffed with unskilled workers.

“They have a right to high-quality, clinically strong, well-informed, trauma-based care. It’s unconscionable to me that there’s anybody that isn’t a trained professional caring for these children,” Dr. Charlesworth said in an interview.

The inquest was called in response to Globe and Mail investigation into the 17-year-old’s death. Jurors heard testimony from the adults responsible for varying degrees of Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux’s care before he killed himself in his Abbotsford, B.C., group home on Sept. 13, 2020. His body was found by police in a closet four days after he was reported missing by staff at the home.

He had been in the care of an Indigenous agency delegated by the province to look after First Nations children in a large region east of Vancouver. The agency, Xyolhemeylh, subcontracted the operation of the group home to Rees Family Services Inc., which hired workers who testified they had no training on how to interact with Indigenous youth, no training on caring for minors who have experienced trauma and few staff who were actually Indigenous themselves.

Dr. Charlesworth said the inquest highlighted the lack of accountability from the different adults in charge of the teen’s care. The jury recommended workers should take notes when meeting with their clients and those notes should be kept on file. Providers should share information in real time about the client so the whole care team is up to date, jurors recommended.

“You heard over and over again: ‘That wasn’t my responsibility,’” she said.

The last witness of the inquest, James Wale, B.C.’s acting director of child welfare, said the Ministry of Children and Family Development will soon pilot a new approach to group homes by offering wraparound support for youth with complex needs and staffing them with people who have clinical training.

But Dr. Charlesworth noted successive provincial governments have failed to fix the long-running problems with these facilities, which were privatized in the 1980s and, as of last month, housed 884 (or 18 per cent) of the 4,905 kids and teens in care, according to data from her office. She said she is considering conducting her own review of the system in the wake of the inquest. Her findings would also be non-binding, Dr. Charlesworth said, but she has a significant amount of influence as an officer who works out of the legislature and is able to monitor progress on recommendations and issue follow-up reports.

Dr. Charlesworth is a former front-line worker who has a PhD in child care, and she co-authored a report in 2012 while with the Federation of Community Social Services of BC that highlighted myriad gaps in the foster-care system. At that time, she found roughly 10 per cent of the 10,000 children in care across the province were living in some form of group home. Since then, the number of children and teens in care has been roughly cut in half, but the proportion of those in these facilities has nearly doubled, she said.

In 2019, the provincial Auditor-General issued a scathing report on this contracted care that found the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) did not provide adequate oversight of the staffing and that Indigenous children were being given little to no chance to connect with their cultures.

“The Auditor-General spoke about it, we spoke about it a decade ago and I’m not sure yet whether the ministry’s plan will meet the needs of these children,” Dr. Charlesworth told The Globe. “Many of the recommendations we made then are still not addressed.”

She said the foster-care system improved in the 1990s as the profession of child and youth care evolved, with specialized health care facilities for kids and teens in crisis, for example.

“We were moving in a good direction years ago; what the heck happened that this is okay?” she said on Friday.

Dr. Charlesworth, who assumed the watchdog role in 2018, said some of the group homes are run by responsible non-profits and companies, but history has shown the province has done a bad job of ensuring this care is actually helping the teens, the majority of whom are Indigenous.

“Anybody who is working in these kinds of environments needs professional training, either a Bachelor’s in child and youth care, a Bachelor’s in social work or something like psychiatric nursing.”

Michael Crawford, president of the BC Association of Social Workers, said in an e-mailed statement on Thursday that MCFD is underfunded and unable to do its job. The ministry has also had a significant recruitment and retention problem despite lowering the educational background required of aspiring child welfare workers in 2019.

“It is incapable of achieving the standards of care it claims to want to deliver due to a lack of available human and other resources,” Mr. Crawford stated. “The B.C. government can strengthen families by ensuring an adequate supply of affordable housing, sufficient income, access to quality education, access to health, mental health and addiction services, and timely support services to parents.”

Mitzi Dean, Minister of Children and Family Development, declined an interview request on Friday, with a spokesperson sending a brief statement from the minister saying her staff are “developing an action plan focused on implementing the recommendations.”

Dr. Charlesworth said she will decide in the next week whether to conduct her own probe into the systemic gaps that led to Mr. Desjarlais-Chalifoux becoming desperate enough to end his own life, which is a move Mr. Crawford said is needed.

This past October, the B.C. government announced it is overhauling its child-welfare system to ensure First Nations are able to assume complete control over the care of their children. The move was hailed by Indigenous groups as an important step forward toward recognizing the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The move also means the provincial government will no longer have a role in oversight and B.C.’s children’s watchdog can get involved only when invited. How standards of care will be monitored under the new system is unclear.

Dr. Charlesworth said the 24 Indigenous Child and Family Service agencies in B.C. – such as Xyolhemeylh – have not received enough money from the province to care for children living off reserves compared with the funds Ottawa provides to care for those living on lands governed by First Nations. She added that these agencies often do good work, but are hamstrung by provincial rules that hinder efforts to help families keep their children out of foster care.