Several times every day in Toronto, vulnerable children and teenagers in group homes are being physically restrained by staff or charged by police, or they’re running away.
Their stories are briefly told in 1,200 Toronto reports describing “serious occurrences” filed to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services in 2013. Most involve children and youth in publicly funded, privately operated group homes.
The Star obtained the reports in a freedom of information request and compiled them according to the type of serious event that occurred — something the ministry does not do. They note everything from medication errors to emotional meltdowns to deaths.
And they shed light on the troubled lives of children placed in group or foster homes by children’s aid societies and desperate parents.
There are 3,300 children and youth in 484 group homes in Ontario, according to the ministry. Those homes, along with foster parents and children’s aid societies, generate almost 20,000 serious occurrences filed province-wide every year.
Yet the ministry does not know, for example, if physical and chemical restraints are being used more or less often over the years, or if more children are sustaining serious injuries while in care.
How can practices be improved if no one is keeping province-wide track of what is going wrong?
Kim Snow, a Ryerson University professor and researcher specializing in child and youth care, says flatly: “There’s no evidence that anybody is taking this seriously.”
“If there is a child death, they become very interested and are all over us for as much information as possible,” says Raymond Lemay, former head of Valoris, the children’s aid society in Prescott-Russell, near Ottawa. “But for the other stuff, we report it and there is hardly a peep.”
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A Star analysis of the two- or three-page occurrence reports, which had names and ages of children redacted, found:
Police are involved in four out every 10 incidents and are automatically called whenever youth go missing. Some homes are quicker to call police than others.
For kids on probation, missing a court-imposed curfew and ignoring house rules can lead to arrest, more charges and a date in court. The result is more involvement with a youth justice system that can follow young people into adulthood if they get into more criminal trouble.
Some of the circumstances outlined in reports that led to police being called, such as damaging property, raise the question: would a parent or a foster parent be so quick to dial 911?
Children and youth are physically restrained in 35 per cent of serious occurrences. That number is low: some restraints are filed under headings other than “restraint.”
A restraint report typically involves the use of multiple physical holds. Some last a few seconds; the longest saw a girl held face-down for 65 minutes and injected with a tranquilizer. Few restraints resulted in reported physical injuries.
The reports ask that the youth’s perspective on being restrained be included, but that section is often left blank.
Four out of five Toronto reports involve children in the care of a children’s aid society. Its workers are supposed to be notified if there’s a serious occurrence, but the Star found reports where the child was clearly in CAS care but there was no indication the caseworker had been brought into the loop.
Eight serious occurrences involved deaths. All were reported by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Four clearly involved infants not in group homes. Two others involved young patients with complex medical conditions who had do-not-resuscitate orders and were last living in a specialized group home.
One woman gave birth in a shelter, her baby dying when his head hit the floor. Another child died due to a possible cardiac arrest, brought on by a condition that was redacted. Another death involved a girl who collapsed during a home visit and died in hospital. She was otherwise healthy.
The language used by some group homes evokes an institutional setting rather than a nurturing environment. When children go missing, they are “AWOL.” In one instance in which a child acted out in front of peers, he was described as a “negative contagion.” Often, the reasons for behaviour are not noted. Children are in a “poor space” and are counselled not to make “poor choices.” Blame is always placed on the child.
In 10 cases, youths at a single mental health treatment centre who alleged abuse were released back into potentially dangerous family environments before the results of a CAS investigation were known.
Record-keeping is not standardized. Several different forms are used to report serious occurrences. Medication errors, which the forms classify as “serious injuries,” are wrongly entered by some homes. And the level of detail varies widely.
Last week, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services announced a wide-ranging review of group homes after the Star presented it with a list of questions based on the serious occurrence data. A panel of experts is to report this fall.
“Doing this review is going to help us bring together the complete picture of what’s going on, both in terms of the number you’re talking about on restraints or police involvement, but also in terms of how are kids doing,” Tracy MacCharles, the children and youth minister, said in an interview.
The ministry wants to know if children in group homes “are getting the best possible supports,” she added.
Ontario’s 46 children’s aid societies are private, non-profit corporations. They are regulated by the government and have the legal power to take children from their parents for reasons ranging from physical abuse to neglect. Most children are returned to their parents within a year, after some form of help is provided.
Those in continued need of protection are made Crown wards after a court decision. They’re placed in foster or group homes, or with relatives, and are monitored by children’s aid societies, which are responsible for their care.
Lemay, formerly of the Prescott-Russell children’s society, says he doesn’t think occurrence information is “collected rigorously across the province. And I’d be wary about low numbers because there’s an incentive not to report” to avoid looking bad.
Irwin Elman, Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, says its time the ministry and children’s aid societies take responsibility for their charges rather than continually passing the buck.
“I am fed up with that dance,” says Elman. “I will not listen to it any more.”
The serious occurrence results are part of a year-long investigation by the Star into Ontario’s child protection system, made up of 46 privately run children’s aid societies receiving $1.4 billion annually from the provincial government. The investigation has revealed a secretive system that has little information on how children in its care are faring, and that fails to act on the data it has.
Ministry budget data between 2008 and 2013 obtained by the Star show that children’s aid societies paid for 3.5 million days of group care. But there was a steady decline over that period from 790,000 days to 615,000 days.
The cost of placing a child in a group home ranges from about $200 to $350 per day, to much more in individual cases where a child’s needs require deeper specialization.
Bob Hanrahan, who owns and runs group and foster homes from Niagara to Durham region, says there are certainly youths in group care who would be better off with foster parents. He says a current “big push” among children’s aid societies aims to reduce the number in group homes.
The province does not post a list of licensed group homes on the ministry website. Nor does it make public annual group home inspection reports.
There are no minimum qualification requirements to work in a group home. Snow, the Ryerson professor, says staff are often young and inexperienced. High turnover doesn’t help. Keeping youth under control is too often the goal.
Some homes are doing “not much better than warehousing” kids, Snow says, while others provide quality care. Improving quality for all requires more qualified staff and decent wages to keep them there, she adds.
“Some children require residential care, and we know that,” continues Snow, who worked in group homes before joining Ryerson. “But when we provide it, it should be the highest quality care, and that’s not the current standard.”
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Physical restraint common in Toronto group homes and youth residences
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The reporters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .