Acting Representative for Children and Youth Bernard Richard has released a report on an investigation into the life and suicide of an Abbotsford teenager in government care.
In September 2015, 18-year-old Alex Gervais was placed by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) in an Abbotsford Super 8 motel after his group home was closed. He jumped through a fourth-floor window of the motel after being housed there for 49 days because the agency caring for him could not find a more suitable option.
Immediately after the teen’s death, the ministry said it housed children in hotels in only in extreme circumstances, but in January it issued a report that revealed 117 foster children had been placed in hotels between November 2014 and October 2015. Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux at the time said their ultimate goal is to eliminate hotel placements entirely.
Today, Richard said Alex was abused while in care of his biological parents, who suffered from mental health issues.
He came into the care of the ministry at age 7, and his journey through the child welfare system was filled with instability.
WATCH: “Broken Promises”
Richard’s report titled Broken Promises: Alex’s Story says Alex lived in 17 different placements under the watch of 23 different social workers and caregivers in the last 11 years, where he suffered “profound neglect.”
He says Alex’s caregiver was nowhere to be found in the last 10 days of his life, and the teen’s texts show the level of desperation he was reaching.
“It did not have to be that way for Alex,” said Richard.
He added his office identified two missed opportunities for MCFD to establish a permanent home and connections for Alex.
He says both his stepmother in B.C. and his aunt in Quebec showed a keen desire to raise Alex and he expressed attachment to them.
“These opportunities were not seized upon the way they should had been,” Richard said.
Instead, Richard says, the ministry opted to spend much more to place Alex in a series of care arrangements with strangers that culminated in his extended hotel stay with a mainly absent caregiver. He stipulates the ministry simply left Alex to “age out” of care.
During his time in care, Richard says Alex complained of at least twice being sexually assaulted, of being mistreated and going unsupervised by a number of caregivers, of having food withheld as punishment and of not being provided with suitable clothing. In his final care arrangement, the report says Alex alleged that his caregiver was misappropriating funds that were meant to support him and leaving him alone and unsupported in the hotel.
Finally, Richard said Alex never received adequate support for his mental health needs and never really connected with his Metis culture, adding Alex was not interested in learning or embracing his heritage. Richard says Alex’s cultural identity was ignored for 11 years, something he believes could have been a “protective factor” and helped to alter Alex’s path.
The report recommends that MCFD provide necessary support so that children and youth in care who are unable to return to their birth families can achieve permanency with extended family or another adult with whom they have a positive connection, and that social workers have the time necessary to pursue such placements.
As well, Richard recommends that MCFD take immediate steps to ensure that children and youth in care who have been identified as having mental health issues receive timely and uninterrupted mental health services.
Finally, this report calls on the ministry to significantly enhance quality assurance oversight and financial accountability for all contracted residential agencies with the highest priority given to the monitoring of service delivery quality and outcomes for children and youth.
There are over 7,000 children and youth in government care at any given time.
In a statement, MCFD said it accepts the report’s recommendations.
“I completely agree with the findings in the new representative’s first report,” said Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux, calling the report fair, balanced and its call to action achievable.
Cadieux also said the state of the ministry’s relationship with the agencies that screen, approve and hire their own caregivers must change. She said the ministry is working to standardize contracting and increase its financial and practice oversight of resources and homes run by contracted agencies. Cadieux said ultimately the ministry hopes to limit the use of contracted agency resources to help children return to a family-based setting.
To read the full report, go here.
-With files from the Canadian Press