You are hereSkip Navigation Links > Home > Professionals > Child welfare > Residential Services > Because Young People Matter > Unique contexts and geographies

9. UNIQUE CONTEXTS AND GEOGRAPHIES

Introduction

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.

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.

Implications for Recommendations

Significant leadership is required in order to create fundamental change in child and youth residential services across sectors and across the province. Notwithstanding efforts on the part of some service providers to become more responsive to the needs of young people in unique contexts, the overall level of competence and activity in this context is insufficient, uncoordinated, generally ad hoc, and therefore unsustainable and unlikely to create change. Consistent with Ontario’s commitment to social justice and egalitarian values, there is an imperative to address the needs and experiences of these young people.

There is a need to enhance the cultural competence of all residential services in relation to the diverse identities and developmental contexts of young people, in partnership with young people themselves. The development of measurable indicators in conjunction with the enhancement of cultural competence will work to ensure visible progress in this area.

The Panel is concerned about the challenges related to moving between residential services and non-residential supports, programs and preventative interventions in the specific contexts of young people focused on their gender, racial, or ethnic cultural identities.

The residential services system must ensure the protection and maintenance of the rights and well-being of all young people, and specifically those who are identified as having complex special needs. The voice of young people with complex special needs must inform the provision of these services.

Co-ordinated approaches to respond to emerging issues, such as the sex trades, are required. This will require a significant focus on capacity-building mechanisms to enhance inter-sector collaboration and rapid response to issues and trends that put extremely vulnerable young people at imminent risk of harm.

Currently, there does not appear to be sufficient demographic data on the self-reported identity of young people living in residential care to meaningfully plan around the needs of particular cultural, racialized or other groups, or the emergence of new groups based on demographic changes (eg: Muslim youth). In partnership with the relevant community, consideration must be given to develop capacity for data collection and reporting in a transparent manner on the number of young people impacted within specific groups.