The territorial government publicly apologized Thursday for an “institution in crisis” that led to allegations of mistreatment from a number of workers and youth living in group homes.
The government acknowledged that it caused “unnecessary stress to these already vulnerable youth.”
That’s according to Stephen Samis, the deputy minister with the Department of Health and Social Services (HSS).
At a news conference held yesterday, Samis explained that he met personally with one of those youth who had alleged mistreatment.
“That experience was wrong; it should not have happened,” Samis told reporters.
His statements were echoed by HSS Minister Pauline Frost.
Along with acting Public Service Commissioner Tom Ullyett, Frost provided some details of the findings in a report by an external investigator hired last May.
For clarity: that report in its entirety was not made public so as not to reveal any identifying information for those youth and staff involved.
Rather, a summary by investigator Pamela Costanzo was provided. It detailed six recommendations – one of which included apologizing.
“To the youth who were mistreated, I apologize. The Government of Yukon was responsible for you, and we let you down,” Frost said.
Part of the allegations in question were detailed in CBC North reports aired earlier this year that reported on events dating back to late 2016.
The government announced last May that Costanzo, a B.C.-based labour and employment lawyer, would be conducting an independent review.
It looked at about six total allegations, five of which were related to specific instances about mistreatment of youth.
The last related to managers at the department covering up or ignoring complaints about this mistreatment.
The five allegations about mistreatment included being denied placement in group homes, eviction from a group home on short notice, and being locked out overnight.
Costanzo noted in her report that she found merit in two of the six allegations: in one, she said the mistreatment of youth was supported and went against law and department policy.
Another showed that a director did not properly investigate an incident – and also broke government policy.
“The results were that two youth did not receive the care they should have been given,” Frost said, echoing Samis’ statements.
Those two youth were involved in incidents in late 2016, just a month apart.
In November, a youth was asked to leave his home for somebody who was taking over his room. Frost said he “did not receive the support of a transition plan.”
And in December, another youth was denied entry into his home, essentially locked out – something Frost said “was not reported through the management chain properly.”
“There is a process in place for transitioning youth out of care,” Samis explained.
He noted that “it is the responsibility of the department ... to effectively and appropriately transition them.
“That wasn’t done.”
The department has since apologized, Samis added.
Its apology comes after officials had questioned some of the allegations during an April 2018 briefing featuring Samis and another government official, in which they said some of the allegations would have broken policy.
Nearly five months later, the report found that two of the allegations had merit – with Samis acknowledging and apologizing that officials had not been given full information.
“Last spring, we acted and responded to allegations without all the information we needed and in so doing, caused unnecessary stress.
“We don’t always get it right.”
Costanzo’s report reflected this, with one of the recommendations made to “encourage reconciliation and reparation be given priority over fact-finding.”
Asked if that implied that fact-finding was given priority in the past, Samis said it was a possibility.
Calling it a “longstanding HR practice in government” to participate in fact-finding, he said the recommendation had been fulfilled by speaking to the youth involved as “an opportunity to create reconciliation through dialogue.”
Pressed on the specific results of those kinds of dialogue, Samis said there had been some changes made since.
“Since these allegations came to light, we have done a number of things – like added supervisors on weekends and evenings,” when he knows incidences are more likely to occur.
He continued that having more on-call staff would help ensure that those who are working in the home are not left alone – especially if another worker has to leave to relocate a youth who has left the home, leaving the residence itself unstaffed.
“That’s not going to happen anymore.”
Samis also explained that in addition to extra training recommended by Costanzo, the department revised some of the qualifications for some workers.
“We looked at different ways of gauging how well people are prepared to undertake that really important and challenging work,” he added.
Meanwhile, the government confirmed that Brenda Lee Doyle, who is listed as the assistant deputy minister with HSS on the government’s online directory, has resigned from her position.
According to CBC reports, Doyle was partly on the receiving end of complaints by an ex-HSS worker about youth in government care.
Frost noted that the allegations of group homes in particular had “cast serious doubt on the department.”
Samis acknowledged that there had been somewhat of a turnover among other HSS staff.
“Most staff who were involved in that time in the department are no longer with the department for a variety of reasons: some retired, some left government service – those are
He clarified that the breaches were related to the government’s law and policy and were not criminal in nature.
Asked if some employees left on their own terms, he answered: “Over time, absolutely, between the time of 2016 and today.”
Samis could not speak specifically as to how other staff were held accountable for the allegations. That was despite Frost saying in her statements that “management and staff are being held to account for the repeated mistakes within the department.”
The minister continued to apologize, noting she has a daughter who is approaching adulthood, so can respect that the needs of those aged 17, 18 and 19 are unique.
“They need support as they find independences and develop into adults,” she said of the youth involved, some of whom were in their late teens.
“In 2016, this support was non-existent to youth in government care,” she added.
Frost also pledged that efforts to reduce homes that are over capacity have been ongoing and will continue.
“Under our government, the days of overcrowded group homes in Yukon are over,” Frost said, as Samis noted that there were more children and youth in care than the government had beds available.
As of 2017, Frost noted that the number of children in government care had dropped from 37 to 25. That number sat at about 17, as recently as last Friday.
But while the quantity may have dropped, the allegations and Costanzo’s findings of mistreatment brought into question the quality of that care.
It’s something Samis said he is well aware of.
Even though four of the six allegations were found to have no merit, he said he recognized that any youth “who perceives their experiences with our services as negative is one too many.”
The misinformation provided to him and other officials by workers was unacceptable, he said. It “created further confusion in the public, media and more importantly, with our staff.”
Some of those staff, he continued, “did not see or fully understand the seriousness of the problems.”
That was allowed to fester for two years since 2014, and resulted in a system that “was in a state of crisis.”
As recently as last Friday, Samis explained, some TSS staff were provided with information on how to advise youth about their rights and how to raise their concerns – in line with one of the suggestions made in the report.
Meanwhile, the report’s six recommendations are as follows:
• the department consider apologizing to a youth for a public misstatement;
• historical critical incident (HCI) review be carried out to investigate an allegation that was found to be merited – looking at whether accountability actions are needed;
• government train and provide information to ensure workers know the complaints processes and of their obligations to confirm children and youth of their rights;
• department work with another youth to document their experiences and provide solutions, if youth agrees to take part;
• documents relating to a youth in the care or custody of the director of Family and Children Services (FCS) be copied across to FCS’s files, from Integrated Supports for Yukon Youth; and
• reporting structure be changed to clarify authority and reflect the Child and Family Services Act.
Samis said that the six recommendations “have all been actioned.”
In response, the government provided a document detailing some of those actions:
• apology provided to youth in question;
• external contractor being hired to do HCI;
• three training modules and four training sessions intended to be shared with staff;
• apology provided to another youth;
• old documents were copied and transferred, with a new process in place for new ISYY clients;
• decision pending from the Public Service Commission about the changes in reporting structure.
On the last note, Ullyett clarified that the request had been granted. “Those changes are underway,” he said.
While Thursday’s briefing came after the government received Costanzo’s report, it is not the only review that is underway.
Samis noted that a “very strong” advisory committee was appointed to look at the Child and Family Services Act.
As reported in the Star on May 30, that committee is featuring six members of both rural Yukon and Whitehorse residents – four of whom are of First Nations ancestry.
That may prove important, as Frost acknowledged in her statements that more than 70 per cent of children in care in the territory are Indigenous.
There are also a couple of investigations into complaints of wrongdoing at the Public Interest Disclosure Commissioner – which deals in part with the territory’s whistleblower
legislation which came into effect in 2015. That comes after a number of ex-HSS workers came forward about mistreatment in group homes.
As well, Frost asked Annette King, the territory’s Child and Youth Advocate, to conduct a systemic review of the transitional support services – the report from which is expected in March 2019.