Nova Scotia

Sydney youth centre staff 'terrorized,' union says

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union is alleging the rampant use of illegal drugs, sex between residents and a lack of rules at Comhla Cruinn.

Joan Jessome says drug use rampant at Comhla Cruinn, a facility for youth between 12 and 18

The coed Sydney youth centre houses up to eight young people between 12 and 18 and is the responsibility of the Department of Community Services, according to the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

The union that represents workers at a Sydney residential youth centre says drug use is rampant at the facility, residents are having sex, and there is a lack of rules and security.

Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, told a news conference Wednesday that staff have reported "horrific working and living conditions" at Comhla Cruinn, which opened in 2005.

The coed facility houses up to eight young people between 12 and 18 and is the responsibility of the Department of Community Services, according to the union. About half the youth are there on a temporary basis, while the rest are full-time "with no home to go to," said Jessome.

She said staff report a lack of control and security at the centre. Residents are allowed to "roam," she said. 

"They come and go, they roam the streets … all hours of the day and night. There's no searches. Drugs are rampant," she said.

Drugs, sex and violence

Jessome said staff fear for their safety when some residents come in "enraged, on drugs" and violent. She said employees have been "terrorized" to the point of locking themselves in a room for safety.

Cape Breton Regional Police, however, say while officers have been called to the centre 540 times in three years, police statistics do not support Jessome's allegations.

"I don't know where she's getting her numbers from," Insp. Ron Donovan said. "But when staff calls in from the centre, everything is recorded on our computer system. An officer will attend and a file is generated."

He said police statistics don't bear out Jessome's report of illegal drug use at the centre.

"We do have a call there with regard to some drugs that may have been in the facility," he said. "Other than that … if it is an issue, I'm not aware of it."

He said his personal experience of the centre included complaints of "property damage in the facility, breaches or kids leaving the facility and not coming back on their curfews." Police were called in often to find missing residents and bring them back.

Budget cuts

Illegal drugs are used inside the facility, said Jessome, and some residents engage in unprotected sexual activity. She said when staff raised concerns, they were told by management "to observe it, not to do anything about it."

Staff report some of the sex may not have been consensual, Jessome said.

Joan Jessome, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said staff and residents are in danger at Comhla Cruin youth centre in Sydney. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

Jessome said the centre was created to house young people considered to be low-level risks who were in need of residential support or outreach programs. That's changed, she said.

"Due to government budget cuts, the facility is receiving residents who are more Levels 3 and 4, meaning (residents who) either refuse or are unable to consent to treatment, and would normally end up in a secure centre for youth," Jessome said.

The union plans to file formal complaints related to its allegations, but in the meantime it's calling on the provincial government to hire security "to ensure the safety of workers and residents."

Police take initiative

Donovan said any complaints of assault or sexual assault would be investigated and charges laid if warranted.

In 2014, police initiated a system of quarterly meetings with the facility and have appointed a liaison officer to the centre who introduced some programs there for the residents, Donovan said.

"I think we're doing everything that we can do to assist the centre in any issues that may arise there," he said.

Community Services staff on the ground now

Geoff MacLellan, MLA for Glace Bay, said the province found out about the allegations just a number of hours before talking to the media Wednesday. MacLellan says Community Services staff are on the ground now talking to people who work at the facility, residents and local police.

"This is an ongoing conversation, one that's very time sensitive so we'll continue over the next number of hours and days to figure out what happened, where the allegations are coming from and what we can do to address them," he said.

When asked about specific claims Jessome made regarding staff members being told not to report certain incidents or use certain words, he said those concerns are being investigated as well.

"That will be part of the specific knowledge gathering that we'll have to do and figure out exactly what the residents are experiencing there and for staff what the conditions are for their work environment," he said.

"We can't have an operation under the province of Nova Scotia that is deemed to be unsafe by staff, by residents, or by the police so we have to make sure we're doing everything right and as much as we can to make people safe."

MacLellan says Community Services will also look into allegations that higher risk youth were being placed at the facility.

"If it is an issue of placement, then obviously that will be part of that conversation and discussion on how we make things better."