Nova Scotia

COVID-19 case sends Nova Scotia secure facility for youth in care into lockdown

Advocates are raising concerns about the conditions at Nova Scotia's secure facility for youth in care, after a positive case of COVID-19 was detected among staff and the facility was placed into lockdown.

'My anxiety and depression are going through the roof,' says youth

The Wood Street Centre in Truro is a secure facility for youth in care in Nova Scotia. (Google Maps)

Advocates are raising concerns about the conditions at Nova Scotia's secure treatment facility for youth in care, after a positive case of COVID-19 was detected among staff and the facility was placed into lockdown.

The Department of Community Services confirmed that "a person connected" to the Wood Street Centre who was last on site on April 27 has tested positive for COVID-19. All staff and youth at the Truro facility were subsequently tested for the virus, and youth have been confined to their rooms.

Madison Joe, an articled clerk with Nova Scotia Legal Aid who represents clients in the facility, said one of the typical benefits of Wood Street is that youth are surrounded by others who are in similar situations, and "they have the understanding that they're not alone." The lockdown changes that.

"What's happening is that they are in this facility now, essentially alone," Joe said.

The Wood Street Centre is a treatment facility for children and youth who are under the province's care and have an emotional or behavioural disorder that requires them to be confined. It is the only such secure facility for youth in Nova Scotia.

'We're supposed to be safe here'

In an email, a youth currently at the Wood Street Centre said that being confined to their room, without access to the facility's amenities such as the gym, was a struggle.

"My anxiety and depression are going through the roof," said the youth, who cannot be named because they are in the care of the province.

"We're supposed to be safe here," they wrote, citing concerns about the risks of exposure to COVID-19 via staff.

Given those risks, as well as the challenges stemming from being isolated in their room, the youth said they'd prefer to be at the Nova Scotia Youth Centre, the province's youth detention facility in Waterville, where they believe there would be more programming and less isolation.

The Department of Community Services [DCS] said in a statement that staff at Wood Street were offered COVID-19 vaccines "several weeks ago," and that "our main concern is the safety and well-being of the young people who reside at Wood Street and the staff who work there."

But Joshua Bearden, a legal aid lawyer who has clients at the centre, said the well-being of youth may be best achieved by reducing the numbers at the facility by moving some youth to group homes or foster placements in the community.

"I hope that DCS can contemplate each youth in the facility and looks at who could be released based on a really stringent needs model: who needs to be there, and anyone who doesn't need to be there, is there another place they could be placed immediately, for the sake of protecting their mental health from the stress of confinement, and reduce the infection risk by reducing the population inside."

Best interests of youth

Particularly if treatment is not being provided, Bearden said it may not be in the best interests of youth to be kept at Wood Street during the lockdown period.

"That's the rule that they are mandated to live by, and they claim to make every decision by, is what is the best interest of the child," Bearden said.

"I would say a pure look at the situation would always say: 'This kid is in here because of emotional distress. However, are we causing more? Or are we alleviating it when we lock them down?' So I just really want that question to be asked."

The Department of Community Services said in a statement that "youth are being supported to meet the guidelines for self-isolation at the facility and follow the advice of Public Health," and are being offered education and treatment.

The department also said youth "will only transition to another approved placement option when it is appropriate for the youth, and supported by Public Health."

Parental visits for kids in care also affected

The current provincewide lockdown had led to broader distress for children and youth in foster care, as in-person parental visits have been halted in response to public health measures.

"If the best interests of the children are at the forefront of everything we're supposed to do, then how is it in the best interest of the children not to have access to their parents?" said Debbie Reimer, executive director of Kids Action, a family resource centre in Canning that serves the Kings County-East Hants area. 

Reimer said she recently spoke with one mother whose visits with their infant child have been moved to Zoom; by contrast, she's supervised in-person custody visits for a parent coming from New Brunswick since the lockdown began.

"Even parents from out of province have access to their children. So why then aren't parents of children and youth who are in care?" Reimer said. "I just think that things could be different, if [the Department of Community Services] wanted them to be."

Reimer said while the province seems to have learned some lessons from the first wave — which prevented parental visits until July, raising concerns about the impact of the extended separation on families — she's frustrated the government doesn't seem to have done more in the year since to adapt its approach to facilitating visits. 

"I just don't think that it's seen as being really important," she said.

'I have more concerns than I have answers'

Reimer said she's concerned that the interruption in visits may prevent parents from accessing the kind of counselling and programming Community Services requires, which they must complete within a set timeline in order to regain custody of their children.

She also worries about the impact of restrictions on parent-child attachment.

MLA Steve Craig, the Progressive Conservative critic on the legislature's standing committee for community services, said he hasn't been able to ask Community Services about how they've adjusted their operations to respond to the pandemic, because of limitations on the sitting of the legislature. 

"I have more concerns than I have answers, at this point," he said.

Nonetheless, he said he has been hearing from families in crisis throughout the past year, many of whom are struggling more because of the pandemic. 

"[Public health] restrictions are absolutely necessary, we need to be able to get this under control. But we still have to manage and help people throughout this whole pandemic, we need to be able to find different ways that we can assist."

Community Services said the move to suspend in-person visits and move to virtual visits was made with the safety of children, parents and service providers in mind, and that it was encouraging contact via "multiple mediums, such as phone, FaceTime, Skype, etc. based on what was successfully used when this was in place during the first wave."