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B.C. youth care home investigation finds unsafe conditions

A provincial investigation has found quality-of-care concerns including staff with criminal records and caregivers without proper training at youth care homes run by a contracted agency in the Lower Mainland.

23 care homes closed, at least 9 caregivers suspended

Alex Gervais died after he jumped from the open window of a hotel in Abbotsford. (Dylan Pelley/Facebook)

A provincial investigation has found quality-of-care concerns including staff with criminal records and caregivers without proper training at youth care homes run by a contracted agency in the Lower Mainland.

Criminal record checks were conducted on caregivers as part of the investigation. A government report on the homes says the checks revealed a history of domestic violence, weapons, physical violence, fraud, theft, assault and "possession of scheduled substances for the purpose of trafficking." It also found two individuals with outstanding criminal charges working in the homes.

The personnel review conducted by social workers for the Ministry of Children and Family Development also noted instances of abusive and threatening language and youth locked out to sleep outside as punishment.

It uncovered filthy and mouldy conditions at two of the residences. At one, raccoons were found to be living in the attic.

The investigation report — released to CBC News through B.C.'s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act — outlines concerns involving caregivers at 10 group homes run by A Community Vision for Children and Families LTD, a contracted agency housing teens.

The agency had been working with B.C.'s Ministry of Children and Family Development for 20 years, providing a "safe, secure and comfortable home-like setting," according to its web site.

Caregivers suspended, 12 youth impacted

The investigation began in January 2015 and concluded in mid-February. By that time nine caregivers were involved, including seven who were suspended. At least 12 youth were impacted, according to the investigation report.

Part of the documents also included a review of caregiver concerns from 2008 to 2014 which revealed "several ongoing themes" with caregivers including the following allegations:

  • Using substances 
  • Criminal offenses.
  • Inappropriate physical discipline.
  • Assault of a teen in care.
  • Viewing pornography.
  • Domestic violence between caregivers.

Much of the report is blacked out including the names of the caregivers and the youth they served.  The report also shows that criminal record checks were conducted on involved caregivers, but those sections have been redacted from the summary report provided to CBC News.

The group home where Alex Gervais was staying was closed by the ministry even though Gervais's foster father, who lived there, says it had no issues. After the home's closure Gervais was housed in a motel where he died. (Google streetview)

In an email to CBC News, Bill Anderson, a spokesman with the Ministry of Children and Family Development, said MCFD ended all of its contracts with the agency because "you don't take risks with the safety and well-being of children."

There was enough of a concern with those 10 homes for the director (of child welfare) to lose confidence in ACV's ability to provide a safe and acceptable standard of care..."

Alex Gervais's home not part of investigation

All 23 group homes run by A Community Vision were shut down in June — a closure that affected 33 children and teens in the province's care — including 18-year-old Alex Gervais who had been a resident at one of the homes for seven years.

After his home's closure, Gervais was living in a Super 8 motel in Abbotsford, mostly alone, when he either jumped or fell from a fourth-floor window. 

Gervais's care home, however, was not part of the 10 investigated in the documents made available to the CBC.

Gervais's foster brother, Stephan Fromow who lived in the group home run by A Community Vision told CBC News in October that there was no substance abuse, pornography or mould where they lived.  

"In the end, the group home that Alex and I were in was the best group home we could have possibly asked for," adding that the ministry's decision to shut down 23 group homes was overkill.

Gervais's former foster father of seven years Allen Hoolaeff says he found it odd the ministry would close down homes that had not been part of the investigation. (CBC)

Gervais's former foster dad of seven years, Allen Hoolaeff, who also lived in the home part-time until last April, confirmed to CBC News that he never witnessed any of the concerns cited in the report.

"In my home there were never any issues.  We had social workers come in and out all the time, I never had any concern of any issues from social workers, if I did, I would've took the initiative to repair them immediately," Hoolaeff told CBC News.

"It's a really odd situation that they would close down homes and not inspect all the homes in the entire agency."

Child advocate launches investigation

The province's representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, first brought these concerns to the ministry's director of child welfare after receiving calls from some of the young people in care, which triggered the investigation.

Although Turpel-Lafond says she appreciated the need to shut them down earlier this year, she told CBC News that she received a commitment from the Ministry to not place dozens of youth affected by the closures in hotels.  That didn't happen.

"Sadly one of the hardest things in 2015 was when I learned that one of these people, Alex Gervais, despite assurances to the contrary was placed in a hotel.  Now I have a full investigation underway as to that, but it should never have occurred," Turpel-Lafond said.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development has also launched a case review of what led to Gervais's death.

A Community Vision disputes findings

In a statement released to CBC NewsA Community Vision says all protocols set by the Ministry of Children and Family Development were followed when screening caregivers and in all cases the Ministry of Justice approved the applicants after it determined that the offence(s) did not indicate they presented a risk to children.

"Having a criminal record was/is not a bar to being approved as a primary caregiver," states the A Community Vision release.

"An individual who has made a mistake, been charged and been fully rehabilitated is often in the best position to understand and relate to a child facing similar challenges."

It also claims that ACV fully cooperated with the investigation that began in January 2015, including terminating certain caregivers as directed by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

In May, the statement reads, the ministry met with the agency to deliver the "results" of the investigation, but refused to provide a report. It claims it only received a redacted version Monday afternoon through the media.

ACV's lawyer, Bryan Baynham told CBC News that the ministry shut the agency down without due process, nor recourse, and it did not give his client the opportunity to respond to the findings.  His client claims the findings are not factual or accurate.

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About the Author

Enza Uda

Producer | CBC Investigates

Enza Uda has honed her skills, working on stories for CBC's investigative shows: Disclosure, the fifth estate and Marketplace. For several years she was the producer for CBC's Go Public. Enza has earned several awards both local and national on a variety of topics. She currently works with CBC Vancouver's investigative unit.

With files from Natalie Clancy and Richard Zussman