Seniors’ care homes have been centres of concern for COVID-19, both because older people are more vulnerable and the virus can spread quickly.
But senior citizens aren’t the only people living in residential care facilities in the province.
More than 2,600 adults with developmental and physical disabilities and nearly 800 children and youth in government care live in contracted residential facilities like group homes.
As community centres, schools and programs are closed indefinitely, group home residents have few other places to go.
So what’s the plan for keeping them safe?
The Tyee posed this question to the Ministry of Children and Family Development and Community Living BC, the Crown corporation that provides services to adults with developmental disabilities. Both use contractors to operate group homes.
The Ministry of Children and Family Development provided an emailed statement that did not respond to Tyee questions and had no information on specific measures being taken. The statement noted the ministry would be exercising “maximum flexibility to ensure that youth continue to receive the support they need during this pandemic.”
“This situation is escalating rapidly, and we are working to ensure that caregivers, staff and youth who receive services have the most accurate and up to date information from the Provincial Health Officer to ensure their health and safety,” it said. “We are all in this together, and we all have a role to play to flatten the curve and protect our most vulnerable.”
The ministry has a COVID-19 page on its website, which includes letters it sent March 13 to caregivers, child care providers, foster caregivers, group homes and youth program operators. There is no letter specifically aimed at youth in care.
Most of the information in the letters is the same: check out the BC Centre for Disease Control, Health Link and Health Canada websites for information, as well as listening to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s daily COVID-19 updates.
The letter to contract residential agencies, which house 783 youth in B.C., that operate group homes for children and youth in care is the only one that does not offer specific safety instructions on hand washing, avoiding sick people and staying home.
It advises agencies to “ensure that you have the appropriate health and safety measures in place and you are providing the latest reliable information to staff to care for children and youth living in the resource” and lists a number to call to report infected residents, caregivers or staff.
But it doesn’t specify what measures the group homes should take.
“As always, connect with your agency contract liaison or resource social worker at any time, for any reason, if you need support for your staff or the children in your home,” the letter reads.
More should be done, says advocate
Adil Walker-Chagani, a former youth in care involved with the child welfare advocacy organization Fostering Change, had more specific advice for caring for both youth in group homes and those living alone during COVID-19. The children’s ministry is responsible for about 600 youth aged 16 to 18 who live alone with ministry support under “youth agreements.”
First, the ministry must get in contact with youth and listen to their views on what they need, Walker-Chagani said.
“They need to be talking to the youth and seeing if the youth have a plan for this whole quarantine thing. Because then it shows that MCFD is trying to give youth some help,” they said. Youth need to know what stores, programs and facilities are open and what are closed.
“Especially now, youth have lost safe and healthy spaces for food, care and connection,” Walker-Chagani said.
“I can speak from experience with me and my friends: there are certain places that we love to hang out, but because of this whole virus, we’re not able to, which is affecting our mental health.”
Youth who are quarantining themselves may not be able to pick up cheques they depend on, let alone take them to the bank, Walker-Chagani said. They said the ministry needs to make it easier for youth to access funds to order supplies.
“The government is trying to figure out ways to help people in general, how to calm people down. That’s what the ministry needs to focus on when it comes to young people: create a plan, figure out strategies for how to help these youth go through this whole chaotic virus,” they said.
More broadly, when anyone panic buys all the toilet paper or an entire deli department, they are making it harder for youth living alone to get what they need, Walker-Chagani added.
“Youth are already dealing with a low amount of budget from the ministry, and to try and go to grocery store to grocery store to try and find the proper stuff they need, it’s very overwhelming,” said Walker-Chagani, who was on a youth agreement for two months before aging out of care in 2016. Youth on these agreements receive up to $1,250 per month to cover all their expenses, though additional funds are available for extraordinary costs like some medical expenses.
As for youth themselves, Walker-Chagani says the most important thing to do, second to washing your hands, is to keep hanging on.
“Don’t stop fighting: it’s not just Fostering Change, there are a lot of people fighting for your experiences to be better,” they said. “No matter what anyone says, no matter who they are in your life, just remember that you do have a voice and that you do matter. Your life matters. Do not let anyone deny that.”
Community Living BC keeping day programs open
Community Living BC referred questions to the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.
The ministry also provided an emailed response, noting it expects all group home operators to have a safety plan in place and stay abreast of the latest information from the provincial health officer and health ministry.
“CLBC and the service provider agencies that operate staffed residential facilities (often called group homes) take the safety of those we serve seriously,” reads an emailed statement. Most of its contracted residential facilities house two to four people, the statement said. Any residence housing three or more people must be licensed by their local health authority.
Both pages include basic measures for how to protect individuals, as recommended by the BC Centre for Disease Control.
Two letters to service providers, one dated March 6 and one March 16, update them on the latest information and steps the province is taking. Anyone concerned about what a particular residence is doing is asked to contact the residence staff directly.
So far Community Living BC has decided to continue offering day programs on advice of the health ministry — provided the local health authority does not advise otherwise. In an update posted to its website Tuesday, CLBC chief executive officer Ross Chilton said that in addition to ensuring programs do not gather groups of more than 50 people, providers should implement “social distancing” techniques and provided a link to a pandemic planning checklist.
As well, the update notes day program attendees with pre-existing health conditions or who “may have challenges complying with the preventative practices” like hand washing should stay away from crowds or places where they risk transmitting the disease. In those cases programming may be able to come to them in their homes, it says.
The Tyee reached out to Developmental Disabilities Association, which operates group homes, respite services and employment and day programs for adults with developmental disabilities in B.C., for their tips on COVID-19 response.
In an email to The Tyee, executive director Alanna Hendren said staff are being told by their union that anyone who needs to self-isolate should expect paid leave.
But Hendren says neither Community Living BC nor MCFD have provided “direction or leadership” on how this will be funded when regular sick leave runs out.
“We cannot afford to pay everyone for this much leave, government has not consulted with us regarding this effort and there is no policy or procedure to how we might access funds,” she said. Because clients continue to rely on their services, which include daycares, adult day programs, outreach and residential facilities, they can’t easily be shut down.
However services that rely on workers entering clients’ homes have been cancelled for the time being. One Victoria day program was shut down after an employee tested positive for the virus, but a second test was negative and the program will re-open Friday.
“Needless to say, it is hard to keep a workforce engaged when they are hearing so many things from so many sources, but we are the ones that have to pay the bills and no one seems to have considered this,” she said. The alliance won’t shut down programs as long as government allows them to remain open, she added.
Hendren shared her letter to staff outlining their COVID-19 response plan. The letter notes “many people who live in our residences are at elevated risk due to fragile health,” but added it is important to keep life as normal as possible for them, their families and the communities that rely on their services.
“In the event of site closures, we will attempt to dispatch affected staff to residential services, which cannot close. Staff will be provided protective gear and the equipment they need to stay safe and keep residents safe,” the letter reads.
The letter also included encouragement for staff to obtain a doctor’s note to receive at least 14 days of leave for COVID-19 exposure or infection, while asking them to take regular sick leave if they believe they have a cold or the flu.