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Issues

Black Youth

Black Youth are overrepresented in child welfare and youth justice services particularly in large urban areas (Peel Children’s Aid Society’s Annual Report, 2013; Toronto Star, 2015; McMurtry & Curling, 2008), and often find themselves placed in what the system considers to be the most intrusive, and often the most containing, type of service – residential group care programs. The Panel recognizes that the genesis of such over-representation falls outside of the residential sector itself, and requires fundamental change, at much earlier stages of young people moving through the child welfare and youth justice systems. In their report titled, Roots of Youth Violence, McMurtry & Curling (2008) accentuate the systemic racism, poorly developed cultural competency, and on-going stereotyping of Black Youth, their families and their communities.

Throughout our external research and consultations, the Panel recognized this as an issue of continuing concern, with currently few initiatives underway to create fundamental change. Program and service initiatives in some CASs are beginning to identify some best practices for child welfare responses to Black Youth in care; the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) has taken note of the need to act in this regard, and the Panel was impressed by the presentation of the OACAS representative as well as the African-Canadian Legal Clinic; however, the transfer of such knowledge and experience at selected CASs across the system appears to be limited. Of concern are not only the disadvantages encountered by Black Youth while in residential services, but also the lack of action to celebrate and enrich the cultural and racial strengths and opportunities embedded in being a Black Youth.

The Panel was especially struck by the overrepresentation of Black Youth at the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre in Brampton, a secure custody/detention facility serving Greater Toronto Area youth. In contrast, in a Panel visit to Syl Apps Youth Centre, all young people encountered in the Oakville facility were white. This observation, notwithstanding its coincidental possibilities, nevertheless reflects feedback received by the Panel that Black Youth are significantly under-represented in mental health and treatment-oriented services and overrepresented in containment-focused facilities. The Panel recognizes that multiple systems are involved in the placement process of young people, and that particularly in the context of youth justice, initial placement of young people is outside of the control of youth justice custody facilities.

At the level of everyday experience, the Panel noted that Black Youth living in group care reported that their experience of having their everyday needs, including, for example, the provision of appropriate hair products and culturally relevant food, was variable. Some young people reported that their group homes or foster homes were culturally responsive while others indicated that this was not the case. Of particular concern to the Panel were the responses of Black Youth in foster care, which were more variable, with some youth reporting experiences of overt racism, rejection of racial identity, and imposition of dominant culture values and customs.

LGBTQ2S

Some young people identifying as LGBTQ2S told the Panel that residential services in Ontario are not safe for them. They told stories of being ridiculed and rejected by caregivers (especially in foster care) and evicted, discharged and, in some cases, traumatized by their experiences in the system. While some young people expressed general satisfaction with caregiver responses to their identity, the Panel was disturbed by the confirmation of staff and management in one setting that being LGBTQ2S would not be safe there. The lack of activity to mitigate these issues is incongruent with Ontario’s values and significant efforts to ensure respect for the rights and well-being of the LGBTQ2S community.

In its consultations, the Panel also heard that young people identifying as LGBTQ2S in the homeless youth shelter system are significantly overrepresented. The Panel had opportunities to hear the stories of some young people involved with the homeless youth service system in Toronto, and heard that the services these young people encountered were inadequate, leading inevitably to the continuation of homelessness upon aging out of the system.

During its consultations with service providers in all residential care sectors, the Panel was not presented with any initiatives that are focused on creating fundamental change pursuant to the experiences of LGBTQ2S youth. While the Panel has since been informed by MCYS of an initiative in this context that aims to produce a resource guide and training materials for the child welfare sector in particular, it is nevertheless concerning that no service provider spoke to any initiatives related to the LGBTQ2S community, nor did the Panel hear about MCYS initiatives until the final days of its work.

Complex Special Needs

Within the residential services system of Ontario, there appear to be few mechanisms to ensure that the inherent rights and well-being of young people identified as having complex special needs are attended to. Many of the past and present youth engagement initiatives implemented across the residential system of Ontario unfold at the exclusion of young people identified as having complex special needs. The Panel found no evidence that these young people have a voice and some agency in influencing major decisions impacting their lives. Additionally, placement decisions related to these young people are often made based entirely on bed availability and provisions for Special Rate Agreements. The Panel is concerned that the human resource context of Special Rate Agreements (one-to-one staffing) unfolds with limited consideration of necessary staff qualifications and supervision (see also Chapter 6 – Human Resources).

During our consultations, the Panel heard that unlicensed programs are emerging across Ontario, often operated on a for-profit basis, seeking to house these young people. While there may be merit in the small setting approach embedded in this model of service provision, the oversight, accountability and standards related to these operations rests entirely with placing agencies, who often are challenged to communicate amongst each other and to ensure sufficient presence in the settings. This is troubling, and further exposes young people identified as having complex special needs to circumstances of disempowerment, a lack of agency and voice, as well as dependence on profit-oriented professionals.

Sex Trades

According to the Toronto Star (2015), an increasing number of young people are impacted by the rapidly growing sex trade. Throughout the Panel’s consultations, we heard from service providers that the sex trades represent a major threat to young people currently living in group care and foster care across the province. These residential services are said to be “recruitment grounds” for young people becoming involved with sex trades.

The Panel recognizes that this is an emerging issue with no co-ordinated approach to respond to it. Service providers across sectors are developing agency-specific responses to this threat, but there is no provincial or even inter-agency coordination of such efforts, resulting in an ad hoc approach to addressing this disturbing emergent trend. The Panel did hear of a more significant and forward-looking approach being developed by Covenant House in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), including outreach, community-based programs and a trauma-informed residential setting specifically focused on victims of the sex trades. This is an encouraging initiative, but scaling up to meet what appears to be a very rapid increase in the number of young people being recruited will be challenging. Leadership will be required to ensure that system responses across geographies are coordinated.

Unique Geographies

The geography of Ontario presents significant challenges pursuant to the distribution and accessibility of residential services for young people across the province. Vast distances between communities in the north of Ontario make it very difficult to ensure that young people have access to residential services close to home. The Panel identifies with the particular challenges for northern Aboriginal communities, who are forced to send their young people vast distances to the south for programs and services. Even in the more populated south of the province, there are significant differences and challenges for residential services related to the recruitment of qualified staffing, the mitigation of isolation of young people while living in rural residential services, and issues related to the high cost of real estate in urban areas where diversity in foster care resources is urgently needed.

The Panel understands the challenges associated with vast distances. It is generally not desirable to provide residential services to young people outside of their home communities, and at distances where family connections become difficult to maintain or support. It is also understood that whenever young people are served in residential care far from their home community, reintegration becomes enormously challenging, and the sustainability of whatever services were received becomes precarious. The Panel heard from parents involved with a children and youth mental health facility, for example, that the experience of their children while living in the residential services offered by this facility was excellent, but these services ultimately made little difference to the family or the young person because upon discharge, appropriate supports in line with the facility’s recommendations simply were not available in the home community.

Many service providers located in rural areas of Ontario face challenges recruiting qualified staff. The Panel heard repeatedly that front line residential staff in group care programs are often individuals using these positions as a stepping stone to other careers, often policing. Farm- or nature-based programs typically are able to recruit very young staff members who stay for a short while before the life style of isolated work contexts no longer fits.

While all of these issues and challenges are understandable and therefore predictable, the Panel does not believe that these unique geographies provide cause to lessen the expectations related to quality of care, qualifications of staffing, and requirements for service providers across all sectors to demonstrate on-going developmental growth and learning. Since young people have very limited input into where they receive residential services, it is incumbent upon the service system and central leadership through government to ensure that the quality of experience is maintained regardless of the geography of the placement.