Tina Fontaine to Alex Gervais: where is accountability in teen tragedies?
Youth advocate loses faith after repeated ministry assurances over no hotel stays for vulnerable teens
It's an offence in B.C. to turn a blind eye to a child in danger.
So there's tragic irony to the fact that as 18-year-old Alex Gervais passed the last days of his life in an Abbotsford Super-8 hotel, police confirmed an investigation into the case of another teenager whose death prompted warnings about placing vulnerable youth in hotels.
Like Gervais, 19-year-old Paige — her last name has not been released — spent a life in government care. And if it ends in prosecution, the investigation into her 2013 overdose death would be the first time B.C.'s child welfare legislation has resulted in charges.
The people being investigated? The same kind of front-line workers who B.C.'s Minister of Children and Family Development now accuses of ignoring her orders by placing Gervais in the hotel for months — alone and unsupervised.
Somehow, says the woman who raised concerns about both cases, the people in charge always seem to escape the blame.
"The modelling of accountability has to come from the top," says Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth.
"The idea of pushing that responsibility back down to a staff that's been incredibly overburdened — it's now moving from embarrassing to actually inflammatory to those who are doing their best to find somewhere for people to live."
Confusion or incompetence?
Gervais' death has thrown a harsh spotlight on the controversial issue of placing children in care in hotels. It has also exposed a mess of conflicting stories and numbers within the ministry itself.
Stephanie Cadieux, the minister responsible, says hotels are used rarely, and only then with the prior approval of the provincial director of child welfare; she says that approval didn't happen with Gervais.
In the wake of his death and the ensuing public outcry, Cadieux reported that she had learned that one other teenager was presently living in a hotel. Meanwhile, her ministry's public relations department said 23 foster children had been placed in hotels for an average stay of five days since last November.
And to further cloud matters, Turpel-Lafond's office estimates the number at somewhere between 30 and 50 — at least.
Cadieux says she sets "high-level directives" and can't possibly be expected to know the status of every one of the thousands of children in the system.
In that case, says Turpel-Lafond, perhaps she shouldn't make promises.
"It's not like I haven't faced that minister … and they gave me an assurance that absolutely no children would be placed in a hotel," says Turpel-Lafond.
"Confusion is one way to say it. Incompetence is another way to say it. They don't have a handle on the situation, and kids are suffering."
'Why are we reverting to hotels?'
Youth advocates in jurisdictions across Canada have been raising red flags about housing troubled children in hotels for years. The issue came to a head in Manitoba with the 2014 death of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old placed in a Winnipeg hotel by the province's Child and Family Services before she was killed.
Fontaine's body was pulled from the Red River eight days after she was reported missing. Outrage over the case led the province to promise to end the practice of placing children and youth in hotels by December.
Marv Bernstein is chief policy advisor with UNICEF Canada and a previous child advocate in Saskatchewan. He says the use of hotels as a temporary means of housing appears to parallel a demand for foster families.
"Can more be done to recruit and retain foster parents? And what about appropriate emergency placements? Why are we reverting to hotels?" he asks.
"This may be something that is starting to bubble up in many different jurisdictions systemically across the country and we need to look at how we can prevent this."
Manitoba established a hotel reduction team to tackle the problem. And in the wake of Gervais' death, Cadieux says a review is underway; she says she was angered by the tragedy.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark rejects any notion Cadieux should resign over Gervais' death. That suggests the buck will stop with ministry staff in terms of accountability.
That leaves Turpel-Lafond in a quandary. It's not her job to make overtly political pronouncements, but she asks how she's supposed to take anything Cadieux says at face value after having been misled.
Her scathing report on Paige's death suggests indifference was one of the biggest factors in a life cut short.
Likewise, Gervais seems to have slipped through the cracks of a system people like Turpel-Lafond have been warning about for years.
If the charge is failing to pay attention, police will find no lack of suspects.