New Brunswick

Auditor general sounds alarm after finding kids as young as 4 in group homes

A growing number of younger children are living in New Brunswick group homes that are plagued by a lack of clear standards and high staff turnover, according to the province's auditor general.

Kim MacPherson fears 'disastrous consequences' as number of children in group homes grows

Auditor General Kim MacPherson found the number of children under the age of 10 in group homes doubled between 2014-15 and last year. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

A growing number of younger children are living in New Brunswick group homes plagued by a lack of clear standards and high staff turnover, according to the province's auditor general.

Kim MacPherson says with the number of foster homes plummeting, more and more children in the custody of the province are subject to the weaknesses in the system.

"Poor management of care for these children can have disastrous consequences, contribution to suicide attempts, addiction, long-term mental health challenges and homelessness," MacPherson told a committee of MLAs Tuesday morning.

"Their future outcomes may depend on the care they receive as a temporary or permanent ward of the province."

The audit found that:

  • The Department of Social Development "does not effectively manage" the placement of children in group homes and specialized placements.
  • A growing number of children under the age of 10, many with increasingly acute problems, are being placed in the system.
  • The department needs to better monitor how the children are cared for and better plan for future needs to ensure there are enough placements available.
  • A new set of standards for children in care adopted in 2018 appears to have no standards for children in temporary care.

Group homes house children from infancy to the age of 18. There are 35 homes around the province funded by the government. They cost $20 million last year.

"We believe department personnel are committed to providing a high quality of care to children under child welfare programs," the audit says.

"However, weaknesses in standards design and implementation combined with other challenges described in this report can seriously undermine this commitment."

The audit also notes that the department "is making efforts to improve services it delivers" but says those improvements weren't in place when the audit was done and couldn't be evaluated.

A key finding is that care plans developed for children entering group homes are often not done in collaboration with the province and do not meet standards or are inconsistent.

High staff turnover

Group home operators told MacPherson's auditors that staff turnover compounds the challenges. They said 521 employees resigned from group homes in the province over a two-year period, a number greater than the 512 employees in total.

The operators said the province needs to provide more funding for wage increases, something the department agreed was "a challenge within the system," the report says, though MacPherson pointed out there has been a pay increase since then.

Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard said that increase, $2 an hour, is part of her effort to raise the status of group-home worker to a profession. 

The audit looked at four different sets of protocols, guidelines and standards the department uses for group homes, including program standards from 1999 that covered both temporary and permanent group home residents.

But an updated 2018 version of those standards doesn't mention children in temporary care and does not appear to apply to them.

"A lack of temporary care standards could lead to inconsistent care decisions across regions," the audit says. "A child in temporary care may not be viewed as eligible for the same services provided to children in permanent care."

Clear standards make it easier for the province to measure how homes are doing at keeping children safe, it says. 

MacPherson told the committee about two cases her staff came across, one a delay in getting a child dental care another in approving the child's request to join organized sports.

In both cases the lack of standards for temporary care delayed "what you would think are simple and straightforward decisions," she said.

Decrease in foster homes

According to MacPherson, the number of foster homes available in the province has dropped from 565 in 2014-15 to 397 last year. The biggest drops in foster homes were in the province's two largest urban centres, Moncton and Saint John.

That drop, "combined with increasing behavioural challenges presented by children entering care," has put new pressure on the province to place more children in group homes, the audit says.

In the same period, the number of children under the age of 10 in group homes has more than doubled.

Shephard said part of the problem is that foster families are getting older, and with more two-income couples, it's harder for younger families to take in foster children. 

Some department staff and group home operators believe younger children "are best served in placements other than group homes," the audit says, but a lack of capacity is forcing the province to make "difficult placement decisions" and affecting the quality of care.

In one home MacPherson visited, she met a four-year-old boy.

"I couldn't understand it," she said. "We don't have foster homes to house a four-year-old little boy. It's very concerning and it's really shocking."

Another growing stress on the system is "increased behaviour complexity of children coming into care such as aggression, self-harm and suicidal tendencies," it says.

That points to the need for yearly evaluations so that the department's eight regional offices can forecast future needs and plan to address them. But those offices don't have consistent, standardized ways to do that.

'Functional weaknesses' in database

The audit also found the department doesn't adequately prepare children for the transition out of a group home. It also said NB Families, the department's case management database, has "functional weaknesses" and should be improved or replaced.

MacPherson urged MLAs to do what they did after her report earlier this year that criticized a funding agreement with the City of Saint John: hold followup hearings.

"You can't just hear the findings of this report and have me tell you what our recommendations are," she said. "The next step is the accountability with the department in terms of how it's going to be addressed."

Saint John East Progressive Conservative MLA Glen Saovie said the government is acting, including by passing a bill allowing relatives of children in the care of the province to take over custody.

But he said it is not an easy issue to address.

"Because of the complexity," he said. "It's a system, and sometimes we create systems that are so large and complex that they are hard to manage."

Foster parents part of solution

Liberal MLA Lisa Harris called for a campaign to promote foster parenting to take pressure off group homes, though she could not say what the previous Liberal government she was part of did on the issue while in power from 2014 to 2018.

Green Party Leader David Coon said Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard's recent attendance at a roundtable discussion with youth in care was a good sign.

"I'm eager to see what she's going to do next."

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said the system is "clearly broken" and echoed MacPherson's call to improve funding for foster parents, which she said would be less costly than funding spaces in group homes.

Shephard said that's not easy in a small province with poor finances, but she'll consider it.

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