'We let you down': Yukon gov't apologizes to youth mistreated at group homes

An independent report on Yukon's youth group home system, presented Thursday, "speaks to an institution in crisis," said the social services minister.

'These incidents occurred during a breaking point in a system that has been fundamentally flawed for decades'

Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost said the report 'speaks to an institution in crisis and of what can happen when things go wrong.' (CBC)

Yukon's social services minister has publicly apologized for how some youth have been treated at territorial group homes, and described the government branch responsible as an "institution in crisis" that needed significant change.

Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost made the comments Thursday as she presented a report into the mistreatment of young people in government care.

A CBC investigation earlier this year found at least one child had described being choked by a staff member at a government-run home. Another youth, in danger of sexual violence, said she was denied access to shelter and a pregnant teen was pushed by a staff member, according to the teen's boyfriend. The alleged incidents happened between 2016 and 2017.

The independent review was ordered last spring in the wake of that reporting.

The investigation report released on Thursday supported two specific allegations of wrongdoing by government employees — in one case, a teen had been evicted from a group home leaving him on the street in winter, while in the other, a youth was locked out of his home in -25 C weather.

The report prompted Frost to issue a mea culpa on behalf of the Yukon government.

"To the youth who were mistreated, I apologize,." she said. "The government of Yukon was responsible for you and we let you down."

The independent investigation, by B.C.-based labour and employment lawyer Pam Costanzo, looked at six specific allegations related to youth being denied placement in a home, evicted on short notice or locked out. Costanzo also looked into allegations that government officials had "covered up or ignored" complaints about the treatment of youth.

Costanzo found that in at least one case, mistreatment of a young person by Social Services department staff was "in breach of [the] law" and the department's internal policies. 

Yukon government officials released a report on Thursday based on an independent investigation into the territory's youth group homes. The investigation was ordered last spring in the wake of CBC reports detailing allegations of mistreatment of youth. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

In another case, the director of the department failed to properly investigate an allegation of mistreatment, also in breach of official policy. 

The specific incidents were not detailed in Costanzo's report, "to protect the privacy of youth in care."

'Absolutely unacceptable,' minister says

Costanzo did not find support for all the allegations she investigated, however. Three allegations relating to specific youth were not supported, her report said, and she also found no evidence that department managers had covered up or ignored complaints.

Speaking on Thursday, the social services minister chose to focus on the allegations that had been substantiated by Costanzo's investigation. She described the department's initial response as "absolutely unacceptable."

"This report speaks to an institution in crisis and of what can happen when things go wrong," Frost said. "Two youth did not receive the care they should have been given."

Frost also admitted that the complaints were not handled properly by senior management within the department.

"These incidents occurred during a breaking point in a system that has been fundamentally flawed for decades," she said.

Frost said that department managers and staff are "being held to account" for mistakes, and that some of those responsible for the problems no longer work for government.

Department officials confirmed on Thursday that the former assistant deputy minister for the department, Brenda Lee Doyle, resigned because of the controversy. 

It's not clear whether anybody else at the department resigned or was fired. The government also would not say whether or how staff had been disciplined.

6 recommendations 

Costanzo's report includes six recommendations for government, based on her findings:

  • HSS seek legal advice and consider apologizing to a youth for a public misstatement;
  • Review one of the supported allegations, to identify systemic issues that may need attention;
  • Training for workers to better understand complaints processes and their obligation to inform youth of their rights;
  • Seek reconciliation and reparation with a youth, by documenting their experiences;
  • Change how documents related to youth in care are kept; and
  • Change reporting structures to clarify authority.

Health and Social Services deputy minister Stephen Samis said Thursday that all six recommendations have already been acted on.

Stephen Samis, Yukon's deputy minister of health and social services, says the government is committed to improving the system. (CBC)

"Health and Social Services is committed to both ensuring these specific recommendations have been completed, as well as a variety of other measures that will result in improved services," he said.

Frost attributed some of the problems to "stress and overload" in Yukon's youth group home system in recent years. She said the territorial government is looking for ways to reduce the need for youth to come into government care. As of last week, there were 17 young people in government care in the territory, she said. 

According to the minister, more than 70 per cent of youth in government care in the Yukon are Indigenous. The government wants to change that by working with local First Nations to keep children living with relatives rather than being placed into government care.

"We are working to keep families together because the apprehension of children is the way of the past ... but we have a long way to go," Frost said.

With files from Nancy Thomson