Photo by Whitehorse Star
NDP Leader Liz Hanson
Photo by Whitehorse Star
NDP Leader Liz Hanson
One of the territory’s opposition parties hopes the government’s public apology to youth and media about the allegations of mistreatment in government-run group homes isn’t a superficial one.
“A cautionary flag is up; this is something that needs to be discussed,” NDP Leader Liz Hanson said of the allegations dating back to late 2016 and detailed in CBC North reports earlier this year.
“It’s not simply that that shuffles off the responsibility – she’s still responsible as the minister.”
Hanson was referring to Health and Social Services (HSS) Minister Pauline Frost. Last Thursday, along with HSS deputy minister Stephen Samis, Frost delivered an apology complete with an acknowledgment that it had been dealing with an “institution in crisis.”
The apology came after the government received a report from Pamela Costanzo, an external investigator and B.C.-based labour and employment lawyer.
Costanzo’s report in its entirety was not made public – rather, a summary of her findings was provided at a media briefing last Thursday.
The report looked at six allegations and found merit in two of them, involving two separate instances that occurred just a month apart in late 2016.
That November, a youth was asked to leave his group home without receiving the support of a transition plan.
Then, in December, another youth was denied entry into his home, something that was not reported through the management chain properly, Frost explained.
Hanson said that was something she was “really concerned” about, especially as it involved already-vulnerable parts of the territory’s population.
The apology also came after officials had questioned some of the allegations last April, saying they would have broken government policy.
Almost five months later, the report found support for two of the allegations, at least one of which had indeed gone against law and department policy.
“Over the course of the last (months), we’ve heard variously from the minister and officials who questioned the veracity or truthfulness of these young people,” Hanson sighed.
“So I’m hopeful that when the minister says she’s apologizing to the Yukon public, that she’s very sincere about that.”
The department also admitted it had been given misinformation from other officials and workers – at least one of whom has since resigned, they explained.
That’s Brenda Lee Doyle, who is listed as the assistant deputy minister in the government’s online directory.
According to CBC reports, Doyle was one of those who received complaints from a senior manager within the department. That manager was not included in a number of whistleblowers who sounded alarm bells about mistreatment in the territory’s group homes.
While the resignation may be a sign of accountability, Hanson said, that the department is unable to specifically address what repercussions other workers faced raises more questions.
That’s despite Frost ensuring that “management and staff are being held to account for the repeated mistakes within the department,” Hanson noted.
In response, the government did say that there have been turnovers within the department, but Samis said this was “for a variety of reasons,” including retirement and leaving government services altogether.
He assured, though, that some employees “absolutely” left on their own terms between the time of the allegations and today.
“What does it say about your trust level ... of setting up an overall atmosphere within HSS,” Hanson questioned.
The government’s statements reflected this consideration, with Frost admitting that the allegations had “cast serious doubt on the department.”
The NDP leader also wondered what kind of impact the allegations have had for on-the-ground workers who interacted with the youth in their care.
“It raises the question of how many (workers) have either requested transfers, resigned, have been removed from assignment, gone on stress leave, etc.”
Hanson also wondered what the apology and admittance of a system in crisis could do against the backdrop of a number of instances that has brought the department under scrutiny as of late.
One of those instances included department officials temporarily closing down an Integrated Supports for Yukon Youth office in June – claiming it was for issues related to plumbing and heating.
A department spokesperson later admitted that there had been “miscommunication,” and it had been indeed closed for internal human resource matters.
Hanson added this still “floored her” months later. She wonders whether this (combined with the apology and briefing last week) could “undermine any confidence that exists in the public and public services.
“I’m a person who wants to believe in people, I want to take people at their word,” the NDP leader said.
“When I see that kind of stuff going on, I find it very challenging,” she sighed.
As for what her party may ask when the legislature reconvenes Oct. 1, Hanson said it may be useful to see the entire report with redacted names to protect privacy.
“(They) gave us a summary – how about we get the full report?” she asked, noting that could allow for more transparency.
Acting Public Services Commissioner Tom Ullyett said last week the report in its entirety cannot be released as it contains private information about individuals involved, including staff and the youth in care.
Hanson said it was “quite right” of the PSC to not talk about personnel matters, which she can respect, but “it would be interesting to know....the public record of group home staff.
“They’re not the ones who should be held accountable for any of this, but the minister and her officials absolutely must be,” the leader said of the children and youth involved in the allegations.
As the government said, the incidences occurred at a “breaking point in a system that has been fundamentally flawed for decades,” Hanson pointed out there may also be a need to take collective responsibility.
“Both this government and the past government, they’re responsible,” she said, referring to the Yukon Party’s 14-year reign. The Liberals came into power in December 2016, Hanson pointed out, and one of the allegations was made a short time into their mandate.
“You can’t say that’s somebody else’s fault,” she said, so she’s glad to see the government take responsibility.
“Yes, there’s history, but the situation and how you respond” to it after being made aware of allegations is important.
“Instead of saying we were aware of something that happened in the winter of 2016,” Hanson said, “they chose to say no, it’s not happening, no people are lying, you’re being misled, etc.”
Now, Costanzo’s report has revealed that at least two of the allegations had merit. That has left Hanson to wonder what other concerns there may be within the department.
“Child welfare and all the related areas that go with working with kids and families is challenging at the best of times,” the leader acknowledged.
“What you need is strong and transparent leadership to make it happen properly.”
Hanson said she remains hopeful that “this is not simply a way of diverting attention – that we’ve done that (apologized) and we don’t have to do anything else.
“This is a good first step, but I’m not prepared at this stage in the game to go beyond that.”
The Yukon Party, meanwhile, was grateful to receive the summary and hopes it would result in “tangible results.”
A party spokesperson wrote Friday that Frost “owes Yukoners an explanation as to why she did not take action immediately,” after becoming aware of the allegations earlier this year.
The minister should specifically explain “why it took (her) months after the allegations were brought to her attention to launch an independent review,” spokesperson Madison Pearson added.
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