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Perspectives from Young People

Although not all youth the Panel spoke with were dissatisfied with the quality of care they were receiving, the Panel found that young people with extensive exposure to group care were most distressed about their experiences, regardless of whether these unfolded primarily within children and youth mental health residential treatment settings, CAS-operated group homes, or group homes operated by private residential service providers. Young people with mostly foster care experience expressed greater variation in the quality of their experiences, and in some instances reported very positive experiences. Nevertheless, most teenaged young people the Panel spoke with shared very negative experiences about either group care or foster care at some point in their lives, even if currently their experience was significantly more positive.

From the perspective of young people, many rules and regulations in group care settings appear unreasonable.

Examples of this include one service provider where young people are allotted a set amount of shampoo each month and then must pay for additional shampoo out of their allowance; in another setting, young people are required to spend inordinate amounts of time in their rooms without any direction of what to do during these times other than to occupy themselves quietly. Many young people we spoke to were concerned about their lack of access to the internet, and related hardware such as phones and tablets, pointing out that they are often left out of generationally ‘normal’ means of peer to peer communication. Youth also expressed major concerns about a lack of privacy in their lives, both in a physical context (no privacy for phone calls, peer to peer conversations, meetings with family members) and in a figurative context (no privacy for identity development, emotional ups and downs, sadness or other very personal experiences). Many young people expressed significant dissatisfaction with point and level systems in group homes, which they identified as very impersonal, objectifying ways of staff imposing control over them.

In the context of foster care, we heard stories from young people about being rejected because of their sexual orientation, discharged because of behaviour, left unsupervised, yelled at, not listened to, and in several instances being subjected to what was described as racism. In the context of residential treatment under the auspices of children and youth mental health centres, we heard many stories of having medications imposed without proper information about their purpose or their side effects, and we heard stories about restraints that young people deemed unnecessary, and levels of control and expectations of compliance that young people experienced as unhelpful. We also heard from foster parents about young people, and in particular First Nations youth, who were prohibited from speaking their language in a secure treatment context lest they were planning subversive activities. In general, young people’s understanding of treatment in a residential context related largely to medication and control. Of the nearly 300 young people the Panel spoke with, only very few, perhaps less than 10, connected treatment to a meaningful engagement with their families.

In the context of youth justice custody, the Panel encountered significant variations in young people’s descriptions of the quality of care they were experiencing. In a large, directly operated secure institution, the young people we spoke to were critical of much of the care they were receiving, and described their everyday experience as boring, not relevant to their needs, and discouraging in terms of their future prospects. In other (transfer payment) secure custody facilities, the Panel was surprised to hear from young people a high level of satisfaction and appreciation for the safety, care and empathy offered to them on a day-to-day basis. Based on conversations with youth, staff and management, the Panel noted that these facilities were all characterized by a highly developed understanding of relational child and youth care practice that permeated throughout all levels of human resources. In some instances, the level of creative program elements and youth engagement (including, for example, animal assisted initiatives and organized chess tournaments) impressed the Panel.

Transitions remain, as they have for many years, a major issue for young people in out-of-home care, whether these are transitions out of family and into care, transitions from one care setting to another, or transitions out of care and into emergent adulthood. The Panel found it troublesome that some features of such transitions that have been cited for decades as problematic continue to occur. This includes, for example, the use of garbage bags to transport young people’s belongings between placements. It also includes the lack of notice and preparation young people receive before being moved. In several cases, the Panel heard stories of young people being given no notice at all and instead being told they are moving only when the worker arrived to carry out the move. We heard of one young person being told that he would not be returning to his foster home on the return drive from summer camp, and he was moved into a new foster home right then and there. Some young people told us that they were tricked into believing that they were going out with their worker for lunch when instead they were moved from one placement to another. In the context of transitions out of care, young people overwhelming reported a lack of preparedness, insufficient supports and the very strong reactions to the loss of relationships with previous caregivers. While the Panel is encouraged by the MCYS investment in transition workers distributed across the province, and also by recent initiatives to support young people pursuing post-secondary education, much more needs to be done in this respect. Ultimately, the age of termination of funded residential service for young people in out-of-home placements, set at 18, may simply not be sustainable as the trend for the average age of young people in the general population leaving home continues to rise and is currently at 26 (Statistics Canada, 2015).