VICTORIA - When the foster father of a teenager tormented by imaginary voices became too anxious for the safety of his own children, British Columbia's children's ministry approved his plan to move the youth to a rental unit he paid someone else to staff.
The next year, the teen told police he had been sexually abused for six months while living at the unit and a ministry investigation discovered his caretakers were hired while standing in line at the local coffee shop and through Narcotics Anonymous.
The case of 16-year-old "Dean" is not even the worst instance of detaching a troubled youth from a loving family environment while consigned to the province's residential-care program, B.C.'s child advocate said Wednesday, as she denounced the ministry for failing to make improvements.
"Unfortunately, that system fell short in every case that we examined," Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond told reporters as she released a report highlighting what she said was the systemic, sub-standard treatment of group-housed foster children.
"I'd like to support the ministry to succeed, but they have not made movement in this area that they can point to, to say that they've made progress."
The report, titled "Who cares? B.C. children with complex medical, psychological and developmental needs and their families deserve better," reviews 31 cases of critical injuries and deaths of children in the residential-care system. About 95 frontline staff were interviewed and three youth consultations were held.
Turpel-Lafond said the work builds on a report she issued nearly two years ago that has been sitting neglected. The earlier report was prompted when police used a Taser on an 11-year-old boy after an adult was stabbed at a group home.
In each of the cases examined for the new report, the child suffered from some range of complex issue, including developmental disorders, medical and psychological concerns and behavioural challenges. Compounded with difficult home lives, they are among the province's most needy. Aboriginal children in the group are a particular concern, said Turpel-Lafond.
The report makes a renewed appeal to the government to immediately upgrade the system, with the emphasis on getting families of dependent children back involved in their lives. It recommends the creation of a new class of foster care, where guardianship of troubled children is shared between the family and the government whenever possible.
"We don't have a model of care. We have an ad hoc kind of auction system, where people say I have X kid, where can we send X kid, do we have a satellite home somewhere?" said Turpel-Lafond.
"Then we find out that ... the people who work there don't have criminal record checks, they don't have training, they're not actually working with families."
Alberta and the U.S. both have better systems, said Turpel-Lafond.
She said it's a matter of law and policy in B.C. that children be raised in a loving and supported family environment aimed at helping them develop. When youth are pushed through the system without continuous care, they're more likely to encounter bigger problems when they reach adulthood, she added.
Turpel-Lafond wants the province to develop a plan by March 2015, with an implementation date no later than September 2015.
Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux released a statement saying the report doesn't reflect the ministry's most recent and ongoing work. She listed several initiatives, including the piloting of a program that hooks up lead foster parents as mentors with newer caregivers, and the addition of six beds to a Burnaby treatment centre.
"While the ministry will continue to improve its residential resources, the three-month timeline set by the Representative is unrealistic given our need to balance this work with other priorities," Cadieux wrote.
Turpel-Lafond's report also recommends the creation of an oversight body, regular audits of contractors who provide residential care and the immediate tallying of instances where children in transition are put up in hotels.
— Written by Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver