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Opposition calls for investigation into Ontario for-profit group home chain

WATCH: Ford government questioned over Global News investigation into problems at Ontario youth home chain

Ontario’s official opposition is calling on the Doug Ford government to investigate one of the province’s largest operators of kids’ group homes following an investigation by Global News.

The NDP demanded action on the “abusive” conditions some kids are facing inside the for-profit company Hatts Off, which operates nine children’s group homes and more than two dozen foster homes across southern Ontario.

A Global News investigation revealed allegations of human trafficking that went ignored — kids who say they were overmedicated, underqualified staff and violent physical restraints, according to 70 interviews with current and former workers and youth who worked or lived in Hatts Off homes.

Click to play video: 'Experts: There is no accountability in Ontario’s child welfare system'
Experts: There is no accountability in Ontario’s child welfare system

In a fiery exchange in Question Period, NDP MPP Lisa Gretzky grilled the Progressive Conservative government over why kids are allowed to live in “abusive” conditions.

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“Will this government finally take responsibility for the kids in their care, investigate Hatts Off and take action so that no child spends another day, another minute in these horrific conditions?” said Lisa Gretzky, the NDP critic for mental health and addictions.

The reporting also profiled the story of Cassidy Franck, who was 16 years old when she lived at a girls-only group home on the outskirts of Hamilton, Ont., in 2021. Franck alleged that the conditions of the home were “terrible” and that she managed to leave the home by going to live with a staff member.

After arriving at the apartment, Franck said she was forced to sell drugs and was ultimately rescued by Hamilton Police Service’s human trafficking division.

The Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, Merrilee Fullerton, called the findings of the reporting “horrific,” but said the government was taking action, which includes increasing the number of inspections in group homes and improving data collection to deliver better services.

“Our government is absolutely committed to making sure that we leave no room in our system for providers who are not operating in compliance with the requirements set out,” Fullerton said.

Read more: Ontario group home chain accused of overmedicating kids in care

Click to play video: 'Calls grow for government probe into Ontario group homes chain Hatts Off'
Calls grow for government probe into Ontario group homes chain Hatts Off

Global News also uncovered a trail of documents, including a secret draft report, an expert review for the Ontario coroner, and countless ministry inspections, which for years pointed to signs of concern at Hatts Off. The reporting also revealed a lack of accountability and oversight.

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Gretzky said Fullerton should “stop trying to abdicate” responsibility and demanded action.

“Every day this government doesn’t implement and enforce stronger child-welfare rules is another day a child is subject to abuse within a system that is supposed to protect them,” the MPP said.

Fullerton shot back that action is being taken and pointed to a redesign of the province’s child-welfare system that is currently underway.

“We know that there are very hard-working people trying to make this better, but the issues that you mentioned exist, and that’s why we’re addressing the inspections,” she said. “It’s why we’re improving oversight. … It’s why we’re improving public transparency.”

Hatts Off’s Chief Operating Officer Bronwyn Naylor said the company refutes “some of the allegations and information” in media reports but takes the issues raised “very seriously.”

“Every incident that happened in the past was addressed and we have effective policies and guidelines to prevent their recurrence,” Naylor said. “We are constantly improving and reviewing our practices to best protect the young people in our care.”

Click to play video: 'Kids risk human trafficking and drugs to escape Ontario group homes'
Kids risk human trafficking and drugs to escape Ontario group homes

The company said its residential homes are “chronically underfunded, while we work with the most vulnerable and complex cases.

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“The government-imposed financial constraints are not adequate to sufficiently support the increasing demand for services,” Naylor said.

In a previous statement, the company said it could not comment on specific cases, citing confidentiality reasons, but said Hatts Off provides staff with extensive training and takes all allegations of human trafficking seriously.

“Despite a massive effort to train staff on treating human trafficking victims and developing safety plans in collaboration with police and other community resources, Ministry policy ultimately makes it impossible to prevent a child or youth from leaving our homes,” Naylor said.

The company added that physical restraints are only used as a last resort when the safety of a child or other person is at immediate risk and after “lesser intrusive measures – like de-escalation techniques – have been attempted.”

It wouldn’t comment on the use of medication.

Read more: Inspection reports reveal disturbing conditions inside Ontario group homes

The allegations involving Hatts Off are part of an ongoing Global News investigation into the province’s child-welfare system, which has revealed allegations by workers and youth of widespread neglect at some group homes operated by for-profit companies.

Current and former workers from other group homes across Ontario have revealed the alarming conditions inside Ontario’s child-welfare system, which had more than 12,000 kids — 17 years old or younger — in its care, according to the latest data from 2019. These homes take in children and youth who’ve experienced abuse, have complex mental health needs, or in some cases, are orphaned.

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Youth in some group homes have said they aren’t getting proper food, are being physically restrained for no reason, and are being given behaviour-altering medication rather than access to proper counselling or therapy.

Jamar Morrison, who once lived at a Hatts Off residence, and others who say they experienced mistreatment inside group homes are calling for action from the province.

“I don’t want people to talk about it,” said Morrison, now 25.

Dozens of workers from group homes throughout southern Ontario have said that for-profit providers are placing profit margins ahead of caring for kids.

These providers are hiring staff – often at minimum wage – with no experience in caring for kids who have experienced trauma or have complex mental health needs, group home workers said.

Experts who have studied Ontario’s child-welfare system for years said there is no accountability or oversight and it is dramatically underfunded.

“The system’s broken. Lots of kids are getting hurt,” said Grant Charles, an associate professor with the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work. “The system has moved past the point of no repair.”

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