Child and youth care system in national crisis, advocates say

The beating of two child and youth care workers at a Manitoba facility last month has sparked calls for improvements to employee safety and training.

Jessica Hadley pens open letter to spark national conversation on workers' safety

Jackie Healey was on her last day of her work placement as part of the Child and Youth Care program at Red River College when she was attacked at the Behavioral Health Foundation in May. (Facebook)

The beating of two youth care workers at the Behavioural Health Foundation last month has sparked calls for improvements to employee safety and training.

"I think that [we] feel that somehow we are broken or very different than other places across the country. There's reports and stories that show that this is more of a national crisis as well," says Jessica Hadley, president of the Child and Youth Care Workers' Association of Manitoba.

Hadley along with Thom Garfat, a child and youth care advocate, have written an open letter addressing safety concerns and training inadequacies of workers that deal with youth with complex needs across the country.
Jessica Hadley is the president of the Child and Youth Care Workers' Association of Manitoba. She says the problems with the system are not unique to Manitoba and are at a national crisis level. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

"This is...not a Manitoba-specific incident-rather it is a symptom of the need for us to change - nationally - how we recognize,respond to and treat traumatized young people and those who work with them," the letter states. "Why is it that the most damaged of our children receive the least adequate of services?" 

The letter follows a similar letter written on June 2, after the brutal assault of two women at the Behavioural Health Foundation north of Selkirk.

Both women sustained head injuries after being beaten with a bat, and socks stuffed with billiard balls.One of the women was a student on a work placement.

Jackie Healey, was the student and she lost vision in her left eye because of the attack. The other woman received about 24 staples in her head after playing dead to survive the attack.

The facility was set to close later this month due to funding problems. The two workers were the only staff on duty at the time of the attack.

Two teen boys were later arrested in Winnipeg and were charged with numerous offences.

The names of the accused can't be released due to the provisions of the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

We need to do better

"We need to realize that what we are doing isn't working. So instead of coming up with another reactionary plan. Let's start to plan a cohesive response," said Hadley.

In the letter, Hadley and Garfat point to a number of issues within the system that have been highlighted in other jurisdictions across Canada, as well as in Manitoba.

Those issues include a lack of education and training for staff and a shortfall in supports for workers and youth in the system. Hadley also says that inadequate funding models also need to be addressed

"All of [the agencies] really do have the hopes and dreams of treating the kids and the staff that work for them with the best possible care, but they are being asked to do so with very limited resources," she said.

Hadley is hoping to keep the focus on what she refers to as 'a system in crisis', and start a national conversation on how to make changes to the child and youth care system.

"Children that are verbally abusive, children that physically act out, that is the nature of what we do. But that doesn't mean that we can't do better to create places of safety," said Hadley.

Hadley says that if the problems aren't addressed they will continue to get worse, citing the growing numbers of children in care. She says many of the kids in the system now, may one day have their own kids in the system.

"I know people in the field who have been doing this job since the 80s who are working with the grandchildren of kids that they originally worked with," she said.

Hadley says it's unfortunate it took a tragedy to start the conversation about the gaps in the system.

"I hope the conversation continues. I hope we find the hope in the tragedy and really do something different this time."

Jessica Hadley and Thom Garfat's open letter on youth care services' system in national crisis

Services for Traumatized Young People in Crisis Nationally

Jessica Hadley, CYC & Thom Garfat, PhD

The young people who assaulted the workers at the Selkirk Behavioural Health Foundation in Manitoba on May 30, 2016 have been arrested and charged. This is as it should be. Unfortunately, that is normally as far as our response to such incidents go - but we are hopeful that this time there may be a difference in how people within the system respond.

Before we get to that, let us say that this is not just a Manitoba-specific occurrence. It can be seen as an example of a national problem in the care and treatment of our most traumatized young people.

Likely, there will be an inquiry and it will highlight a number of issues or recommendations which will have been identified before in previous inquiries in other jurisdictions across Canada, such as:

  • Inadequate funding for organisations providing services to our most vulnerable and traumatized young people,
  • Lack of qualifications for direct care staff and a lack of hiring standards,
  • Ineffective staff ratios.
  • A program focus on conformity and control rather than treatment,
  • A failure to engage young people in the process of their treatment,
  • A lack of appropriate supportive supervision for staff, and
  • A failure to recognize the Child & Youth Care profession and its skill set

We need only to look at the recent Residential Services Review report in Ontario (CBC News

Online May 2016) to understand that this is a nation-wide crisis; a crisis which blurs the lines between governmental jurisdictions and portfolios.  

There are programs and people in every corner of Canada who are doing good work and genuinely helping young people and their families. Yet, it is an unfortunate reality that time and time again (following such incidents) we hear that the system needs to change. In simple terms reports on such incidents, across the country, say that the system is just not working well, that it is a system in crisis.

We cannot continue to react to young people as if their struggles were only of their own making, expecting them to conform to a system of demands which treats them as objects, not subjects, and expects them to comply without responding to their needs as developing human beings.

With regard to the incident in Manitoba, we are encouraged by the message that the new Party in power in Manitoba was sending throughout its campaign, and in their early weeks in office, that they want to make a difference in the lives of the traumatized, disconnected, discarded and marginalized Children, Youth, and Families of Manitoba. It is our sincerest hope that we can work with the government to avoid old ways of assigning blame, mouthing rhetoric, or quietly shelving inquiry findings and instead move forward in action to forge a new path, to work collaboratively towards change. It is also our sincerest hope that this newly forged partnership can be a rallying point for change not only for the children and youth of Manitoba, but for the rest of Canada as well.

This is, as we said earlier, not a Manitoba-specific incident - rather it is a symptom of the need for us to change - nationally – how we recognize, respond to, and treat traumatized young people and those who work with them.  Why is it that the most damaged of our children receive the least adequate of services? When do we as a society recognize that we are not developing whole sections of our most valuable resource?

It is time for a different response than we have had in the past. We are hopeful that Manitoba might lead the way.

Jessica Hadley, CYC, President

Child and Youth Care Workers' Association of Manitoba

Thom Garfat, PhD (CYC)