Safe house, government failed sexually exploited teens: children's advocate

A safe home for sexually-exploited teenagers in Regina has failed children and must make changes or be shut down, Saskatchewan's children's advocate says.

Asafe home for sexually exploited teenagers in Regina has failed children and must make changes or be shut down, Saskatchewan's children's advocate says.

Marvin Bernstein is the latest public official to criticize the Oyate safe house and the provincial government department that gave it $1 million.

The home was set up three years ago to help teens being exploited in the sex trade, with most of its clients being 12- to-15-year-old girls.

Earlier this year, CBC News revealed Oyate was badly managed, had high staff turnover, poor training and lax financial accounting.

There were also reports that some staff were driving teens around at night and that in some cases, clients were still involved in the sex trade while they were living at the house.

The uproar that followed led to a critical report from the provincial auditor in June.

On Thursday, it was Bernstein's turn to find fault with Oyate house and the government.

Systemic problem

In a sharply worded report, he said Oyate house was poorly managed and didn't provide adequate services to the children in its care.

It failed to prohibit their sexual exploitation and didn't prevent dangerous articles and drugs from entering the home, Bernstein said.

Bernstein also extensively criticized the government department responsible. For example, he said the Community Resources Department closed case files "with full knowledge that the child continued to be a victim of sexual exploitation."

Speaking to what he said was a systemic problem, Bernstein said the department needs to change its focus when it comes to children in its care.

Right now, instead of making the welfare of children the top priority, the government seems to be putting cultural and family considerations first, he said.

"That's a direction that we can't support," he said. "I do not believe that an exclusive family-centred approach is a good one."

Bernstein said the same philosophy of reuniting children with their families at all costs has come up in reviews of child deaths his office has conducted. Children should not be returned to families where a pattern of neglect and abuse continues, he said.

Children have "paid with their lives" after being subjected to the policy, he said.

'Too high a price to pay'

"It is too high a price to pay and as the children's advocate, I cannot allow their voices on this issue to be silenced and forgotten," he said.

Bernstein says the government and the board of directors at the safe house have to make significant changes in the next two months.

If not, he recommends Oyate be shut down so that another group can be hired to help teenage girls being exploited in the sex trade.

The latest report again put Community Resources Minister Buckley Belanger on the hot seat.

He said the problems with Oyate and the department will be fixed. He said it will be accomplished with various strategies after consulting with different groups.

Although Opposition politicians have criticized the government for failing to act sooner on the problems at Oyate house, Belanger insisted the government took action as soon as it knew the extent of the problems.

"We responded fast, decisively," he said.