Nova Scotia

Rates of children in Nova Scotia's care requiring emergency placement are soaring

The number of young people in the province’s care requiring emergency placements in hotels, houses and apartments has skyrocketed in the last three years.

Community Services Department rolling out new options to help address needs

The province's Community Services Department says it could use more foster homes. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

The number of young people in Nova Scotia's care requiring emergency placements in hotels, houses and apartments has skyrocketed in the last three years.

It comes as the Community Services Department faces a shortage of foster homes or other appropriate places for some cases that can be extremely complex.

From Sept. 1, 2016 to Aug. 31, 2019, the department required placements of safety 249 times for 201 young people. Some required more than one placement.

In total, those young people spent 23,940 days in hotels, houses, apartments or cottages in the province, according to documents received in response to a freedom of information request.

Total bill of $29.9M

The total bill for those stays, which includes the cost of two contracted caregivers for each young person, was $29.9 million.

The numbers are all significant increases from previous years examined by CBC News and the department is taking steps to try to bring them down.

Wendy Bungay, the director of placement services for the Community Services Department, said the emergency arrangements can be necessary if a placement for someone already in care is no longer working.

She said they can also occur if someone comes into the province's care and a placement isn't immediately available, or the nature of the young person's situation makes it impossible to place them anywhere else due to factors such as medical, legal or behavioural issues.

"Many of these children have complex needs and, because of that, being able to match them with an appropriate placement becomes more challenging," Bungay said.

Wendy Bungay is the the director of placement services for the Community Services Department. (CBC)

Places of safety are intended to only be used for up to 28 days. While 97 of the placements included in the data fit that criteria, and another 90 were for between 29-99 days, some were much longer.

Forty-six of the placements were for 100-299 days and 16 were for 300 days or more. Three surpassed 700 days.

Bungay said department officials have noticed a spike in use particularly in the last two years and they're working to find alternatives, particularly for kids spending long times in the emergency arrangements.

One step has been to try to place children with other family members, something the department calls kinship arrangements.

Thirty-one of the emergency arrangements in the data disclosed fit that definition. Bungay said it's an option that can also be used as the family member is evaluated for foster care.

Bringing in extra help

Given that at least a quarter of the young people on the list are on the disability continuum, a plan is also in the works with the province's disability supports program to create 12 small-options homes for 19 children and youth currently in emergency arrangements.

Three young people have already moved into their new homes and transition plans are in the works for the remaining 16, who will receive service from one of seven contracted service providers, according to the department.

Bungay said another step the department is taking is contracting Key Assets, a non-profit care program, to work with six "harder-to-care-for" young people for the next year using a multi-disciplinary team to provide round-the-clock service.

Each case is different and Bungay said that's to get a sense of just how useful the service might be.

"And their goal is to transition each of those children into community placement, whether that's family, adoption or another placement option within our continuum as soon as possible," she said.

A need for more foster homes

The hope is the intensive focus on meeting a child's needs will lead to reduced cause to use places of safety and decrease the time required when it is necessary, said Bungay.

The department is also hoping to get more foster families. Right now there are about 680 foster homes that care for about 65 per cent of all children in the care of the province, but Bungay said she'd like another 300.

"I would rather have more than we need," she said.

"I think that foster care is always — if family is not available — that's the best possible option."