Thunder Bay

Ontario won't say where high needs youth were moved after Thunder Bay, Ont. group homes shut down

After conducting unannounced inspections, Ontario has closed three privately-run group homes in Thunder Bay, but it's not clear where the high risk youth who lived there have been moved.

'These children required specialized care and options were very limited," First Nations leader says

'That's a lot of trauma for a child,' says Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum of the moves Indigenous children in the child welfare are forced to make. (Martine Laberge/Radio-Canada)

After conducting unannounced inspections, Ontario has closed three privately-run group homes in Thunder Bay, but it's not clear where the high risk youth who were staying there have been moved.

The homes, run by Johnson Children's Services, Inc., were closed after "a report of concerns" prompted the inspections, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children and Youth Services. The homes are contracted by Tikanagan Child and Family Services to house First Nations children in their care who have a mental health diagnosis.

Tammy Keeash, 17, of North Caribou Lake First Nation, was staying in one of the Johnson homes when she disappeared on May 6. Her body was found the next day in the floodway of the McIntyre River in Thunder Bay.

Ontario is "responsible for these foster homes that they provided a license to and if they have to close a home, then they have to ensure there are options so that the children in that home, where I've been told these children who require specialized care, can go," said Nishnawbe Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum.

"That's a lot of trauma for a child if there isn't a plan, a constructive plan in place when these things happen," she said.

Tammy Keeash, 17, was living in a Johnson group home before her death in May. (Thunder Bay Police)
Alternative care arrangements were made for the children in the homes, but the ministry says legal restrictions prevent it from sharing that information.

Keeash is the fourth teen from a remote northern Ontario First Nation to die while in the custody of a child welfare agency since October 2016.

"We have been asking that we have foster homes and specialized services closer to home," said Achneepineskum. "We're hearing from the families now that they were totally disconnected from their children."

Ontario's Ministry of Children and Youth Services is "developing a blueprint for child and youth residential services reform that will focus on improving quality of care," said spokesperson Trell Huether, and is committed, "wherever possible" to ensure they receive culturally appropriate services.

The need for more and better services for Indigenous youth from remote First Nations in Ontario was further highlighted this week by the death of Jenera Roundsky of Wapekeka First Nation.

She is the third 12-year-old girl to die by suicide in the community of about 400 people, since January. Roundsky was in the care of Tikinagan Child and Family Services in the weeks prior to her death, and was also living at a group home outside her community, while receiving mental health supports.

First Nations leaders say Tikinagan returned Roundsky to Wapekeka against the wishes of chief and council.

"She was in 24-hour care after the first two suicides," said Wapekeka band manager Joshua Frogg. "She returned to the community a few weeks ago against the psychiatrist's advice. There was no plan of care, there was no safety plan for her."

Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum said the discriminatory federal funding regime for First Nations child welfare is at the heart of all of the concerns.

"Our child and family service agencies have been chronically under-funded for many years now," she said.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled last month that the federal government's funding practices may have contributed to the suicides in Wapekeka First Nation in January.

The tribunal had previously ruled that the federal government discriminates against First Nations children on reserves by failing to provide the same level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere.

Health Canada said in a news release Thursday that it is providing funding during the crisis in Wapekeka, including "three staff rotating every 10 days, up to four mental health counsellors, administration and ground support."

Four youth mental health counsellors, funded by Health Canada, are already in place, according to a spokesperson. Their roles are part of the $380,000 annual funding package (until 2019) for mental wellness for Wapekeka First Nation.