Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Kids in provincial care staying longer in hotels and other 'last resort' places

More complex needs have led to an increase in time young people in the province's care are spending in alternative living arrangements, such as hotels.

More complex needs and declining foster family numbers contribute to extended stays

While the number of young people requiring emergency care in alternative living arrangements from the province has remained steady, the time they're spending in that care is on the rise. (istock)

The woman who oversees child protection in Nova Scotia says increases in the amount of time young people spend in hotel rooms and other alternative living arrangements reflect a growing trend of children with "very, very high needs" as they enter the province's care.

A CBC News investigation looked at kids in care who were placed in hotels, houses, apartments and cottages, known as "places of safety," from Sept. 1, 2014 to Aug. 31, 2016, as a followup to a previous examination.

The information, released following a freedom of information request, shows that while the number of kids in this type of placement has only slightly increased, the amount of time they are spending in such circumstances has gone up dramatically.

Numbers provided by Nova Scotia's Community Services Department for Sept. 1, 2014 to Aug. 31, 2016. (CBC Graphics)

While the previous examination from July 2012 to September 2014 showed 17 kids spent a total of 762 days in alternative living arrangements, the latest data shows 20 kids spent a total of 2,369 days in such care.

Cost of care also on the rise

Not surprisingly, as the number of days increased so, too, did the cost: $2.6 million up from $686,000.

Wendy Bungay, director of child protection for the Community Services Department, said places of safety are considered a last resort.

They are used in rare circumstances when the department must find an emergency placement for someone coming into care because the appropriate resource, such as a foster home or residential facility, isn't available.

"It's a means of intervention to keep them safe, supervised and supported until an appropriate placement can be made available," she said.

Numbers provided by Nova Scotia's Community Services Department for Sept. 1, 2014 to Aug. 31, 2016. (CBC Graphics)

3 of 1,053 kids in places of safety

As of this week, there are 1,053 children in the province's care and just three of them are in places of safety.

Bungay said there are a variety of factors that might lead to someone needing one of these placements, including very special medical or behavioural needs. Involvement with the court system could also be a mitigating factor, she said.

The care includes two-on-one staffing, face-to-face contact with a social worker at least every four days and daily contact between the social worker and care provider. An initial placement can only be for up to four days and then it must be comprehensively reviewed, said Bungay.

"You have to demonstrate all strategies that have been utilized if it's going to exceed that period of time, and there's regular reviews for that purpose."

Declining foster family numbers

That the needs of some people are increasing is causing the department to review how it handles the cases and what resources are in place when they present, said Bungay.

They are also looking at what's led to successful foster matches in the past and what kind of foster parents they need for the future.

There has been a slow but steady decline in the number of foster families in Nova Scotia, mirroring a national trend, and Bungay said the department is actively trying to recruit new families. She estimates the department needs another 100 families right now.

Wendy Bungay is director of child protection for Nova Scotia's Community Services Department. (CBC)

One of the ways department officials are trying to decrease the length of stays in emergency care is to look for similarities among kids who have been in these placements.

Bungay said she feels good about how the department responds to the cases and noted that all three of the people currently in places of safety have "very clear planning in place" for transitioning into an appropriate long-term arrangement.

"It's optimistic from my perspective that we know that it may not be today, but if a place of safety needs to be extended for another two weeks or another three weeks to increase the likelihood that the next placement is going to be that long-term placement where they'll be successful, then I'm OK with that."

About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca

With files from Susan Allen

now