Throughout its consultations, the Panel was interested in the experiences of residential care on the part of young people who identify their life context in unique ways. In particular, the Panel had opportunities to talk with young people who identify as Black Youth, as Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender, Queer, or 2-spirited (LGBTQ2S), as well as those who have been identified by the system as having complex special needs. In addition, the Panel repeatedly heard about young people recruited into the Sex Trades. While there are additional unique contexts that might have been explored (such as Muslim youth, individuals who experience both hearing and speech impairments, or others), we are commenting in this chapter in particular on the experiences of Black Youth, LGBTQ2S youth, young people identified as having complex special needs, and in general terms, young people recruited into the sex trades. The Panel believes that the experiences of the young people who identify as living in unique contexts indicate a need for residential services across sectors to significantly enhance their capacity to engage and be engaged by the rich diversity amongst young people they come into contact with.

Currently, the residential services system in Ontario includes few programs and services specifically targeted towards young people with unique life circumstances related to their culture, racial identity or gender context. A frequently cited commitment to treating all young people the same is an insufficient response to the needs and strengths of particular racialized, gender-identity or complex special needs youth. Treating young people with different life circumstances related to their culture, racial identity or gender context, “the same” as others fails to treat them equitably. The social, political, economic and cultural contexts of families and communities that serve as life spaces for these young people must be taken into account when designing service responses to their needs. Young people who identify as Black Youth or as LGBTQ2S provided clear feedback to the Panel that their identities and aspirations fall outside of the normative structures of residential care. They often feel unsafe, unwanted and abandoned by what they characterize as a hetero-normative service culture in the context of LGBTQ2S, and ‘white’ service culture in the context of Black Youth.

The two official languages of Canada are English and French, and French is recognized as an official language in Ontario in the courts and in education. It is therefore important that, in the residential services system of Ontario, there are service providers who offer adequate programs and services that meet the unique needs of Francophone youth. According to MCYS (2014), one in four Francophones in Ontario are under the age of 25 and almost one in two young Franco-ontarians live in Eastern Ontario, close to the Quebec border. In the past, Francophone youth in Ontario have expressed that they find it challenging to speak French in many situations (MCYS, 2014). In addition, Francophone youth described various contexts, outside of the residential system including movies, music, internet and television, that often impact their choices in relation to spoken language (MCYS, 2014). As a result, maintaining a Francophone identity can be challenging for youth.

In the Panel’s consultations, we heard that services and programs offered in French are limited. Young people, foster parents and service providers indicated that there are insufficient services and programs that both offer and promote French language, education and placements. One set of foster parents advised that the young person in their care was sent to a service provider who told them that they could not speak in French, their primary language. Also, foster parents described situations to the Panel that included longer waiting lists for mental health services and counselling in French. For Francophone youth to be able to embrace their identities, the Ministry must ensure that there are sufficient French speaking services, education and placements for these young people.

In consultations with service providers, the Panel was concerned by the clear articulation on the part of young people, front line staff and management groups of a lack of safety for LGBTQ2S youth in some residential contexts, and in particular in a larger custody context. The Panel was also impressed with the clarity and concern expressed by representatives of Black Youth service providers or advocacy groups, who provided examples of deeply embedded systemic racism. Young people themselves provided many examples from both group care and foster care of losing placements, of being criminalized, and of being stereotyped due to their identity. Few service providers in any sector were able to point to any form of innovation, specialized response, or meaningful engagement of LGBTQ2S or Black Youth in particular. While the Panel is aware of several child welfare initiatives in the area of community engagement in particular with Muslim communities in some regions, such initiatives were mostly absent with respect to these groups. One notable exception with respect to Black Youth was an initiative taken by Peel Children’s Aid Society (CAS), with a designated management staff coordinating community-based activities focused on cultural and Black identity themes. The potential for agencies across sectors to learn from these initiatives appears not be fully taken up by other organizations.

Young people identified as having complex special needs are largely voiceless and clearly vulnerable in Ontario’s residential services system. The Panel did not have confidence that these young people can be assured of the upholding of their rights under either the Child and Family Services Act (CFSA) or the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The Panel was told by MCYS Regional Office program supervisors that placement decisions for these young people are often driven by the preparedness of (usually private, for profit) service providers to admit the child and by the financial considerations pertaining to any given placement option. The use of Special Rate Agreements (SRA), involving one-to-one staffing sometimes for 24 hours per day, appears to be utilized as a means of convincing a service provider to accept these children and as a ‘treatment’ feature by the service provider. The Panel is concerned about the inadequacy of oversight, accountability and transparency pursuant to the everyday experiences of these young people, who typically are less able to advocate for themselves or to file complaints as part of frequently very technical complaint procedures.