Province urged to take action to help ‘abandoned’ kids in care

Michael Robinson | Telegraph-Journal

November 28, 2019

Green Party Leader David Coon says children in group homes have been “abandoned by the very government that is supposed to take responsibility for them.”

In an emotional interview on Wednesday, Coon urged a fundamental shift in the way the Government of New Brunswick cares for the children in its care.

“If I were premier, I would take the view that these are my kids,” he said. “As soon as you do that, everything changes.”

Coon was responding to a five-part Telegraph-Journal investigation that shone a light on New Brunswick’s youth group home system, uncovering flaws of an “inherently traumatizing system” that child advocacy experts say is failing children in government care.

The MLA for Fredericton South said those elected to government turn a “blind eye” to problems plaguing the youth group home system and “just cross their fingers hoping it does what it is supposed to.” 

As a result, he said, “youth in these homes feel abandoned and worse, feel like they are treated like dirt.”

Coon, his voice breaking, recalled hearing MLAs in the legislature who have repeatedly claimed “[youth] are our future.”

“But apparently they are not our future if they’ve got problems… ” he said, pausing to collect himself before continuing, “you know, which the system should be helping them solve… and put the necessary supports in place to help those kids.” 

“In my role, I feel like I should be able to do a lot more and I’m frustrated that I can’t.”

Coon’s frustration with was echoed by other parties in the legislature. 

The Liberal Party’s policy advocate for the Social Development, Lisa Harris, said she was left “saddened, shocked and confused” by reports detailing the gaps in the youth group home system.

She called on the Conservative government to ensure there are enough social workers to spend the “necessary” amount of time with youth residing in the homes. 

“Until they feel they are supported, nothing is going to change,” she said. “They are already coming from a place of feeling betrayed, alone and scared.” 

Harris, the MLA for Miramichi Bay-Neguac, said she intends to push for an all-party committee to “find ways of looking after these youth in a better way.”

“There is a reason the youth feel the need to run and there is a reason why they are extremely unhappy,” she said. “We need the premier to show heart, care, concern and leadership and show these youth they matter and we are going to make life better for them.”

The Telegraph-Journal sought comment from Social Development Minister Dorothy Shephard and Premier Blaine Higgs but did not receive a comment prior to publication but was advised the premier would be available to comment Friday.

Youth group homes are privately run, publicly funded operations located in communities throughout New Brunswick. Residents enter these homes by way of the Department of Social Development, which removes children from their family homes for safety reasons. The most homes can be found in Saint John.

The Broken Homes series published in the Telegraph-Journal this week lifted the veil on the lack of data the province maintains on how children in its care are faring, including on how often police are called to different group homes. 

Which, as it turns out, is quite often, for reasons like a child in care breaking plates or leaving without permission. 

In 2014, police in Saint John alone were called about 300 times, service call data obtained by the newspaper shows. Over the last five years, that number has doubled, totalling 808 calls in 2019.

Kris Austin, leader of the People’s Alliance Party, said he was “taken aback” by the reports Social Development does not track this metric.

“I would hope the minister is going to be very aggressive in making sure at least we can quantify what the issues are,” said Austin, who represents Fredericton-Grand Lake.

Austin emphasized with local police officers, including the chief of police, who described the increasing calls to the homes as a “burden” that turn police into a “taxi or babysitting service.” 

“It’s unfair that municipalities are carrying policing services for what is a clear issue with how the province runs social programs like group homes,” he said. “Perhaps what’s needed is a regional public safety officer that would address youth issues to deal with less significant incidents and leave the more serious situations to local police to handle.”

Youth themselves will speak to legislators at the upcoming New Brunswick Youth in Care Hearings in Fredericton at the Legislative Assembly on Nov. 29.

More to come …