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Systemic issues putting children in Yukon group homes at risk, say 2 more whistleblowers

Children are being put at serious risk because of systemic problems in Yukon's child protection system, according to two government workers.

A total of 3 workers have come forward to CBC to sound alarm about child protection system

Tyrell Jackson, 19, entered foster care when he was about three. Jackson spent all his teen years in a government group home in Whitehorse and is speaking out about the way he was treated. (Paul Tukker/CBC)

Children are being put at serious risk because of systemic problems in Yukon's child protection system, according to two government workers.

The two whistleblowers are the latest to come forward to sound alarms about the territorial-run group homes. Last week CBC reported allegations from another worker within the system and two youth alleging abuse and mistreatment at the group homes. The Yukon government has said it will launch a "systemic review" of its six group homes in the government's Transitional Support Services (TSS) program.

Some of those allegations are also being corroborated by a 19-year-old who recently graduated from the group home system.

One worker says there's a lack of understanding about the legislation that governs child protection, and said there's also gaps when it comes to assessing if a child is in danger in their home, and whether they need to be removed.

"As a result, children are harmed, and get hurt — neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse."

CBC has agreed not to name the workers over fear of reprisal.

The worker says they are speaking out because they fear for the children that the system is designed to protect.

"The stakes are huge, they're tremendous" for children, said one worker.

"Training about how to do child protection, how to do a forensic interview [with] children, how to recognize bruises and burns, how to age them, how to do a thorough safety assessment — all those types of training don't happen here."

The worker said assessments to determine whether a child is safe are sometimes done over the phone, instead of a home visit, which often isn't enough. They said workers should see the child's bedroom, talk to their teachers and see if there's enough food in the home.

"Is there neglect? Is this a family that is trying their best but unable to meet the needs of their kids? Or do we see holes in the door? Do we see feces on the floor, wet diapers all over the place?" the worker said.

"We won't be able to see that if we don't go to the home. We can't do it off the side of our desks."

System adds to trauma, worker says

Another whistleblower says youth in group homes, especially youth with undiagnosed mental health issues, are often moved out of homes because they're more difficult to deal with.

The worker says those youth wind up on the street or couch surfing — scenarios that put them at further risk.

"Emotionally, the system has added to their trauma and to their hurt. And that has been a common theme for many years."

Two youth previously told the CBC that they were physically assaulted by group home workers — something the whistleblower says there's "no excuse" for.

"I can appreciate how a worker may feel exasperated, exhausted, frustrated," said the whistleblower.

"I can appreciate how one gets to that place — but we remain the adults. We remain the adult who is meant to be in control."

The worker also said it's not uncommon for youth in group homes to have a bed one day, and be told it's gone that night.

Tyrell Jackson, 19, knows what that feels like. He's a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council and entered foster care when he was about three. Jackson spent all his teen years in a government group home in Whitehorse.

Nothing is going to change unless you speak up.- Tyrell Jackson

He says when he returned to the home one November afternoon when he was 17, two social workers were waiting for him.

They told him to pack his stuff and leave within two hours.

"I'm like, what, what's going on here? And they're like, 'yeah, there's other kids coming here to move in.' I was like, 'dude, I don't even know where to go, I have no place to stay. I felt like rock bottom."

Similar to another allegation from a youth who spoke to CBC last week, Jackson said he too was locked out of the group home in –30 C temperatures.

"That happened a few times … They'd be like 'you look stoned, you look intoxicated.' I'd be like 'smell my breath, I haven't been drinking, I haven't been smoking, it's all good.' And they'd be like 'no' and they'd close the door and lock you out."

Jackson says he would walk around downtown until he got too cold, and then sit inside a bank foyer until he was kicked out.

'Toxic' work environment

One of the whistleblowers says while there are "fantastic people" working in group homes, others aren't well suited for the job.

"Through legislation, child protection services has such an enormous amount of power, and to live in a system that actually abuses that power is really most sickening."

Both whistleblowers say there's a pervasive "culture of fear" within the child protection system, describing it as "toxic and dysfunctional." They say there has been a mass exodus from the department over the last few years.

They say workers who speak up about problems are targeted by managers and they're afraid they'll be discredited if they bring their concerns to the minister responsible.

"I'm not an unhappy or disgruntled worker. I'm a frustrated worker who thinks we could do better."

One of the workers said nothing ever changes, no matter how dire the circumstances.

"There can be a child death review, and somebody comes and does an evaluation and makes recommendations — and it's all paper, just paper. Nothing happens."

Call for 'neutral' review

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Services said no one from the department would be provided for an interview.

The allegations of mistreatment in Yukon group homes and what the government is doing to protect children's rights has been a topic in the Legislative Assembly over the last week.

Minister of Health and Social Services Pauline Frost said last week that the government is co-operating with the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate to conduct the review of the group homes.

Both workers believe that a review won't fix the problems, because the office has no legal authority to order change.

The workers urge that an "external, independent and neutral" auditor from outside the territory come and examine policies, programs and decision-making.

Jackson, too, wants to see real change for kids in care.

"I want to put it out there for others, if they're going through the same thing. Nothing is going to change unless you speak up about it and come out of the shadows, out of the darkness, and tell what's going on," he said.

"Nothing is ever going to change unless you make it change."

About the Author

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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