Youth group home closed over allegations gang connected staffer offered cocaine to child

B.C. children’s representative says he has “grave concerns” after learning that another youth residential agency has been closed over issues with caregivers, including allegations a gang-connected staff member offered cocaine to a child.

B.C. minister orders review of more than 800 children living in contracted agency homes

B.C. Children's Representative Bernard Richard has asked to meet with Minister Katrine Conroy to discuss his concerns. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

B.C. children's representative says he has "grave concerns" after learning that another youth residential agency has been closed over issues with caregivers, including allegations a gang-connected staff member offered cocaine to a child.

Bernard Richard laid out his worries about what he describes as a "lack of appropriate ministry oversight" in a June 8 letter to Katrine Conroy, the minister of children and family development.

"It appears to me that, at present, the ministry has not established sufficiently robust quality assurance processes to meet even that most minimal standard: of ensuring no further harm to vulnerable children," Richard wrote.

He told CBC he was "floored" to learn that a major government-contracted group home agency had to be closed by the ministry in May, which meant 18 children and teenagers had to be relocated. 

The most pressing issue, he said, continues to be a lack of background checks for people who work in group homes.

"I was shocked to read about the behaviour of some of these caregivers but also to find out that there are hundreds of caregivers who can work in these group homes with the most vulnerable children in British Columbia and nor have criminal background checks or screenings," Richard said.

He added that he's not naming the agency to protect vulnerable children in care, but it's a for-profit organization in the Lower Mainland.

An investigation into the agency was prompted by a young resident's claims that a staff member, said to be affiliated with a gang, took him on drug drops, smoked marijuana with him and offered him cocaine, according to Richard.

The representative says that a ministry investigation revealed only 10 of 33 employees with the agency had completed criminal record checks and security screening. Nine staff members have since been permanently barred from caring for children, and 13 others are being screened further because of concerning information.

3rd major agency closure

According to Richard, this is the third major agency in three years that has been forced to close because of sub-standard care and unsuitable caregivers. He says the closures have affected about 70 young people.

"The ministry has known about these issues for some time, has been presented with options to improve the system and yet continues to place the most vulnerable children in its care in harm's way," Richard said in the news release.

He is asking for a meeting with Conroy to discuss the situation. 

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

Just last year, Richard issued a report on the death of 18-year-old Alex Gervais, which detailed several failures by the ministry, including problems with screening staff.

Sixteen months later, the ministry has created a centralized screening hub to review the qualifications of caregivers, but Richard says that nearly half of all residential agencies in B.C. have yet to use it.

In a written response, Conroy said that Richard's letter "rightly outlines a number of flaws in the system of contracted residential care for children and youth in care" and that, effective immediately, no new contracted residential agencies will be allowed to open without the approval of a senior official from the ministry.

Conroy said what's needed is a complete overhaul of the system.

"This is a problem the previous government grappled with, and it's one that I, as minister, have been concerned with and will not allow to continue," she said.

She added that she's asked for a review of every one of the more than 800 children living in contracted agency homes to determine where they should be living.

Richard said he'll judge the province's response by the results.

"The proof will be in the pudding. Actually I'm a bit incredulous, just because of the track record," he said.

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