Youth protection services in Montreal forced Indigenous teen to isolate in windowless basement room

An Indigenous teenager was held in isolation for 48 hours in a windowless basement room at a youth protection centre in Montreal last week, a COVID-19 precaution that Indigenous rights advocates say was unnecessary and abusive.

Teacher discovered student was living in alarming conditions under pretext of COVID-19 fears

The Batshaw Youth and Family Centre is being accused of forcing an Indigenous teenager to isolate for several days in difficult conditions in a group home. (CBC)

An Indigenous teenager was held in isolation for 48 hours in a windowless basement room at a youth protection centre in Montreal last week, a COVID-19 precaution that Indigenous rights advocates say was unnecessary and abusive.

The teenager, 16, has been in isolation at a Batshaw Youth and Family Centres' group home since Tuesday, though the teen has since been moved to a room with a window.

The teen did not come into contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, but was categorized as a suspected case by an algorithm employed by Batshaw, according to advocates with the Montreal Indigenous Community Network.

They were alerted to the teen's situation by a teacher who brought schoolwork to the group home on Wednesday.

The teacher told CBC News the room where the teen was being held had only a bed and a chair. The teen had no books and their cell phone had been confiscated.

This teacher, whose identity CBC News is protecting, said he was sad and angry when he saw where his student was being isolated. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

"I was really overcome with an equal combination of rage and sadness that this could happen to a student of mine, but also that this has probably happened to other kids over the past several months as well," the teacher said.

"It was clearly an unsafe environment emotionally, and probably physically as well given that there was no secondary egress in a basement room with no window."

CBC News is withholding the teacher's name in order to protect the identity of the teenager who is under the care of the province's youth protection system, the Directeur de la protection de la jeunesse (DPJ). 

Classified as risk by algorithm

Advocates with the Indigenous Community Network have been pushing Batshaw to improve the teen's living situation.

The group home sent the Indigenous student to school on Tuesday, seemingly unaware the school was closed due to problems on the Île-aux-Tourtes bridge, said Amanda Moniz, head of advocacy at the network.

In a recent meeting, Batshaw staff told the network they believed the teen had taken too long to return home, given that classes had been cancelled.

Batshaw told the network that a risk-assessment algorithm had classified the teen as a COVID-19 risk, and so they ordered a 14-day self-isolation period, Moniz said.

"They were extremely resistant when we questioned their protocol," added Moniz. "They didn't want to hear anything. They specifically told us to move on from the question."

According to Moniz, her group also got in touch with the CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, the regional health board that oversees Batshaw.

She says they were told that isolating the teenager was an unnecessary and "drastic" measure.

However, in a statement to CBC News, the health board did not indicate whether Batshaw had done anything wrong. 

Amanda Moniz, from the Montreal Indigenous Community Network, says the Batshaw Youth and Family Centre dismissed their concerns about the Indigenous teenager's living conditions. (CBC)

"When it is required, the youths that are exposed and are suspected of being infected with COVID-19 isolate themselves," the statement read. 

"Isolation does not mean leaving the youths to themselves … The presence of an educator is assured in addition to offering them different sources of entertainment."

Moniz said that with the help of public health officials, they were able to arrange a COVID-19 test for the teenager on Sunday. If it comes back negative, the teen will be allowed to exit isolation.

As of Friday, Moniz said, the teen still was not permitted to go outside or use a cellphone.

"In a basement, looking at concrete walls, with not a window in sight; a single bed and a chair. No access to their personal phone. They didn't have access to going outside. It's inhumane," said Moniz.

This appears to be a violation of youth protection guidelines, which the CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal shared with CBC News. The guidelines also state that children in COVID-19 isolation are supposed to have access iPads, films and books.

Batshaw has not responded to a request for comment. CBC News also requested comment from Lionel Carmant, the minister responsible for reforming Quebec's youth protection system.

A spokesperson said Monday that Carmant wasn't available for an interview.

Student 'clearly not doing very well,' teacher says

The teenager's teacher said he insisted on delivering the school materials to his student in person because he didn't trust Batshaw and youth protection.

"I've had unfortunate situations with the DPJ before and I wanted to see for myself that my student was being looked after and I wanted to see [the student] in person," he said.

"I kind of went in through a side door, pressed a few buzzers until I was … told where [the student] was."

A recent public inquiry into Quebec's youth protection system called on the government to address the chronic mistreatment of Indigenous children by authorities, which has been flagged repeatedly in the past.

The inquiry also raised concerns about the growing use of isolation as a disciplinary measure.

Provincial youth protection guidelines stipulate that isolation periods, if required, should be as short as possible. The average length of time was half an hour in 2018-2019.

Had the Montreal Indigenous Community Network not reached out to Batshaw and to public health officials, the teacher believes his student would have spent 14 days in isolation for no valid reason.

Based on what he saw from his student, he believes damage has already been done.

"[My student looked] fragile," the teacher said. "[The student] clearly wasn't doing very well... [They] put on a strong face to make it look like everything was OK."

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio and Marilla Steuter-Martin