Protect young people in group homes

Posted on July 8, 2015 in Child & Family Delivery System – Opinion/Editorials – Some young people in Ontario’s group homes are being physically and chemically restrained or funneled into the justice system. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Jul 07 2015.   Editorial

A girl in a specialized treatment centre is held, face down, for more than an hour, then injected with a tranquilizer.

A boy with a “developmental disability” smashes his bedroom window during a “disagreement” with another youth. Staff call police and the boy is arrested and charged with mischief.

Was the appropriate action taken in these cases? Could staff have handled disruptive behaviour in less coercive ways?

It’s impossible to know. The stories of these two young people are among 1,199 disturbing “serious occurrences” reports about children in care in group homes and other settings in Toronto that were filed to Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services in 2013. But the ministry doesn’t analyze the data for provincial patterns or trends that could inform guidelines for staff training and youth care.

An investigation by Star reporters Sandro Contenta, Jim Rankin and Laurie Monsebraaten, and data analyst Andrew Bailey, cast some worrisome light on the situation. Here’s what the ministry doesn’t know about the 3,300 vulnerable young people in its care in Ontario’s 484 group homes:

Whether staff is too quick to use physical or chemical restraints, and whether those restraints are being used more or less often than in past years.
Whether young people are sustaining serious injuries.

Whether staff is too quick to call police to address problem behaviour — quicker than biological parents might be — with the result that kids are needlessly funneled into the justice system.
Whether staff could be better trained to handle difficult situations.

That’s a lot of questions concerning Ontario’s $1.4-billion child protection system.

While the ministry may not have analyzed its own data, the Star did. Here are two distressing findings:

Police are involved in no fewer than four in 10 serious occurrences. Youths end up under arrest in 25 per cent of those cases.
Young people are physically restrained in 35 per cent of serious occurrences.

Granted, youths in care often have behavioural issues. But these are kids who have been at risk or abused before being placed in care. “How in the hell do we expect them to achieve to their full potential, to heal, to find supportive relationships in these types of environments?” wonders Irwin Elman, Ontario’s advocate for children and youth.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When the children’s aid society serving Prescott-Russell, east of Ottawa, became concerned about the high use of restraints in their group homes they hired an American expert to teach staff how to deal with aggressive behaviour. Use of restraints plunged 80 per cent.
Basic staff training on de-escalating outbursts can prevent kids who act out from ending up in police custody, before a judge.

This issue is finally getting the political attention it deserves. Minister of Children and Youth Services Tracy MacCharles is setting up a panel to look into problems the Star has flagged. What’s needed is “a 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 the kids are doing,” MacCharles said. Meanwhile the New Democrats are pressing for a full public review.

Ontarians will be watching. We can do better by the kids in our care.

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