Nova Scotia·Q&A

Joanne Bernard discusses 'serious allegations' at Sydney youth centre

Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard discusses the "serious allegations" at Comhla Cruinn, a Sydney residential centre run by her department for youth between 12 and 18.

Department interviewing staff and youth at Comhla Cruinn after NSGEU says employees being 'terrorized'

Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard says the province is continuing its investigation into allegations raised by the union representing staff at a Sydney residential youth centre. (CBC)

Community Services Minister Joanne Bernard appeared Wednesday on CBC Radio's Information Morning in Cape Breton to discuss the allegations at Comhla Cruinn, a Sydney residential centre run by her department for youth between 12 and 18.

Last week, NSGEU president Joan Jessome held a news conference to discuss concerns raised by staff at the centre. She made a series of allegations and said some employees were being "terrorized" by residents.

Information Morning host Steve Sutherland began his interview with Bernard by quoting Jessome's remarks.

Sutherland: Staff were reporting "horrific living and working conditions at this facility. They regularly report being threatened, abused, assaulted by clients. They're also very concerned that the clients are engaging in unsafe sexual activity which may not be consensual, or being assaulted at the facility, and are using drugs."

What do you have to say to that as the minister?

Bernard: Those were serious allegations that came to light. We certainly had not had any history of those allegations coming from staff into the department. So we quickly had boots on the ground to the facility and talked with staff and certainly talked with the youth. Those conversations and investigations are ongoing — but there had not been any reported incidents to our staff at the Department of Community Services. So we're reaching out to the NSGEU to look further.

You know, we have to remember that these organizations, particularly the ones run by the department, house some very complex children that have come from some very difficult, abusive, neglectful, dangerous situations — and it is our job to make sure that they feel safe, and at the end of the day are safe.

'Trying to get to the bottom of the allegations'

Sutherland: Can you give me some specific details on what you've done to investigate the claims?

Bernard: Interviews with staff, interviews with the kids. Any organization in the province that are housing children that are in the care of the minister always come forward if they have difficult situations and then the department reacts appropriately, usually with extra staff, or extra training.

We, in this situation, had not been aware, because we had no reports to our staff within the Department of Community Services. It's hard to fix what you don't know — so [we're] going to the organization, speaking to the staff, really trying to get to the bottom of the allegations.

Sutherland: So what did you find out?

Bernard: Those are still ongoing. I mean, this just came to light last week. One of the things we have been mitigating is reassuring the young people — who listen to the news — who thought this organization, the only home that they know right now, was closing. We had to mitigate and allay those fears.

Sutherland: You say there have been no complaints, which, lack of a complaint doesn't mean that there aren't problems.

Bernard: No, but to be fair, in any workplace if there are very serious allegations you would hope — and you encourage — workplace people to come forward and say, look, we need your help. The department has a responsibility to always make sure that children who are in the care of the minister feel safe and supported, and the staff doing that work feel the same thing. So when we know, we act. It's as simple as that.

'Absolutely, categorically, not true'

Sutherland: Joan Jessome has also claimed that management was aware of the problems, that staff had been asked not to call police too often at the facility, and asked when drawing up their reports not to use words like violence, which could call attention when being searched by a freedom of information request.

Bernard: I think that my colleague, Minister [Geoff] MacLellan, probably characterized those allegations best when he used the word 'asinine.' It is our responsibility to see that needs are met, bottom line. So to suggest otherwise and to use the words 'cover-up' are not true. Absolutely, categorically, not true.

Sutherland: How do you know?

Bernard: Because we work with every single — and there are 16 facilities in the province and we work with them every day. So if you do not have a historical context of this happening, then you know. Complex behaviours happen in facilities all over the country, and every government responsible for children in care must respond and do respond to the needs of kids and to the needs of workers that work there.

Youth that come from 'horrific circumstances'

Sutherland: We did interview a couple of people who live at the residence, and protected their identities. They said they were afraid sometimes living there, and that there was some violence, and that they had gotten into a fight. One young woman referred to a friend who had come back under the influence of drugs, so obviously there are some things happening there.

Bernard: Absolutely, and I can't emphasize this enough that when you have children that have come from horrific circumstances and they have emotional and behaviour needs, there are going to be behaviours that are not acceptable. There are protocols in place and whenever children gather and youth that have complex needs gather, of course you're going to have incidents. You have policies and procedures in place to make sure those are mitigated, and you work with each kid so that what they're going through now doesn't become their legacy for the rest of their lives.

Sutherland: From what you say, the investigation is still ongoing. Will the public see the results of the investigation?

Bernard: I haven't made a determination yet. My priority right now is to ensure that these kids are safe, to ensure that they know that we are there for them, that they are in the care of the minister, and that the organization will be fully supported in everything that they need, and that it will not close.

Sutherland: Have there been any changes there?

Bernard: We're very early. There are always changes in every organization that deals with kids in care. There are organic case plans, so there may be extra staff, there may be extra training. That's part of social work in the protection of children every day in Nova Scotia.