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MCFD approval of child restraint, confinement 'inconceivable': child and youth rep

A report from the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth released this morning revealed the Ministry of Children and Family Development has authorized confinement and isolation of children in government care, despite no legislative authority to do so.

"Who Protected Him? How B.C.'s Child Welfare System Failed One of Its Most Vulnerable Children" describes the life circumstances leading up to the tasering of an 11-year-old boy in the ministry's care last year. The child, for whom *22 reportable incidents have been reported to the ministry, has a heart condition which Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-LaFond says increased the risk of fatality when he tasered.

"At all of the residential placements that this child lived since he was eight years old had a so-called 'safe room,' a place where the child was isolated when his behaviours became challenging or were perceived to be aggressive," said Turpel-LaFond at a press conference in Victoria this morning.

"There is no ministry policy in British Columbia, there is no legislative authority under the child welfare legislation, to permit the use of isolation in this way outside of mental health facilities and prescribed in legislated youth justice facilities. ... Ministry's own standards for staffed residential resources expressly forbids using exclusion and isolation or confinement as behavioural management techniques and view it as a reportable circumstance that must be addressed immediately."

The child, who is of Aboriginal heritage but was not identified for reasons of privacy, lived in seven different foster homes until he was placed in a privately-owned residential care home at eight years old. It was there that the use of "safe rooms" was first instituted and continued to be used in the seven group home settings he was placed in. Turpel-LaFond said the reasons given for isolation were to calm the child down, but the evidence pointed to isolation being used as a form of punishment.

"It is inconceivable to me that the ministry could allow the use of such a room, and it was suggested a few years ago that they granted an exemption from that prohibition on using seclusion so that the private operator could in fact use it. It is inconceivable to me that the ministry could grant that exemption when they had no authority to do so," she said.

Further attempts to calm or restrain the child led to visits from the police, and trips to the emergency room where he was sedated. Turpel-LaFond would not say where the child lives now, only that he is in a safe but inappropriate setting for his needs.

The report makes four recommendations, including developing a comprehensive continuum care plan for children and youth with specialized needs that cannot be met within the traditional foster-home setting; the set up and maintenance of affective oversight of care given to children with highly specialized needs in care; the development of an internal ministry unit to train social and residential homecare workers and policy makers to work affectively with children with highly specialized needs; and to discontinue the use of isolation and restraint of children in care.

"These recommendations are insufficient to address the problems that we have today, which is that this child does not have an appropriate placement," said Turpel-LaFond.

In an emailed statement from Stephanie Cadieux, minister of children and family development, she accepted Turpel-LaFond's recommendations and said work was already underway to ensure this situation doesn't happen again, including opening a new six-bed treatment facility for children with specialized mental health needs at the Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre.

"The recommendations underscore the direction the ministry is already taking to close those gaps," reads Cadieux's statement.

"Since coming to the ministry two years ago the deputy minister (Stephen Brown) has taken a number of actions to improve the system. He has re-established the director of child welfare to strengthen our oversight; increased the reporting of incidents to the director and the representative to improve monitoring; introduced a new child protection assessment and planning process to ensure a child’s safety is paramount in any decision regarding their care; (and) completed a review of foster and group care services that support children in care to ensure their needs are better addressed.

"We are changing how we care for children by redesigning how we deliver foster care and group care so that the individual needs of the child are met."

While Turpel-LaFond acknowledged her working relationship with the ministry has improved since Brown was appointed, she says the government has yet to make clear that change for child welfare in the province is a priority.

"It tells me that we continue to have deep frailties in our child welfare system, but I'm not surprised by that, because I look at it. It tells me that we're not putting the effort and resources into fixing it," she said. "But it isn't just the ministry: it is in fact a system-wide problem. The healthcare system, the emergency room, these schools.

"It costs money to run a good system, and it takes well-trained and committed people with good values. But when you do something like this to a child, it also costs you, and we will pay one way or the other. I hope we decide to pay upfront to do what's right, because we will end up paying at the backend for the children that get harmed."

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter.

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