Ontario ombudsman slams foster care company, child welfare agencies for failing Indigenous girl

Click to play video: 'Ontario ombudsman report exposes failures in Indigenous youth care'
Ontario ombudsman report exposes failures in Indigenous youth care
WATCH: Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé has released a scathing report about the failures of the province's child welfare system. As Carolyn Jarvis explains, the report focuses on the case of one vulnerable Indigenous teenager – Apr 13, 2023

When a 13-year-old Indigenous girl repeatedly went missing from foster care in southwestern Ontario, the company looking after her kept assuring police it had no safety concerns.

Johnson Children’s Services (JCS), the for-profit foster care agency, labelled her a chronic runaway and repeatedly delayed notifying police of her disappearance, in one instance by more than four hours.

In the interim, the girl was anything but safe, according to a scathing new investigation by Ontario ombudsman Paul Dubé.

“There is evidence that during these absences, she was physically and sexually assaulted, and suffered injuries requiring medical treatment,” Dubé said.

The young girl, whom the report only identified as Misty, also overdosed after taking illicit drugs like fentanyl.

“Various components of the system failed Misty during her stay in Southwestern Ontario, leaving her at significant risk of human trafficking and other harm,” said Dubé, who noted the young girl is now back in her northern community.

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'An Indigenous child welfare agency’s fight to restore culture and raise kids at home'
An Indigenous child welfare agency’s fight to restore culture and raise kids at home

The ombudsman investigation revealed stunning and repeated failures by JCS to care for the “particularly vulnerable” child who was living hundreds of kilometres from her home. The company has come under intense scrutiny in the past and was forced to close its foster homes in Thunder Bay, but was permitted by the province to keep operating in the south.

Misty spent nearly 50 days in the care of JCS in 2020. She went missing seven times, including one period of 19 days.

For Dubé, one of the key takeaways was the realization that the lessons from the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and girls have not been implemented.

“The child welfare system fails to meet the needs of Indigenous youth … especially when there’s trauma involved,” Dubé told Global News.

Story continues below advertisement

The findings also laid the blame at the feet of Anishinaabe Abinooji Family Services (AAFS), an Indigenous wellbeing society in northern Ontario, as well as another unnamed child welfare agency in the south.

Some of the major failures included a lack of one-to-one support for Misty, a practice in which one worker is assigned exclusively to a youth. In this case, the Indigenous wellbeing society paid JCS for the service, which apparently did not always happen.

The report also pointed to “significant gaps” in staff training, and its dereliction to report serious incidents, including bodily harm.

Before arriving in southern Ontario, hundreds of kilometres from her home, Misty had “lived an unsettled life, full of trauma, loss and numerous interactions with the child welfare system.”

Dubé noted she lived with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

Misty had been in the care of AAFS, which provides services to 14 different First Nations in northwestern Ontario. AAFS placed her with JCS after it had been unable to find resources closer to her home “that could meet her complex needs.”

Story continues below advertisement

“One of the most frustrating, disappointing aspects of our investigation is finding out the lack of resources that exist in northern Ontario for young people, for children and youth with complex needs that need resources for mental health issues and substance abuse,” Dubé told Global News.

“This report and this investigation display that quite convincingly, unfortunately.”

The investigation revealed that AAFS had failed to scrutinize the conditions placed on JCS’s license and monitor the quality of care it provided.

The Indigenous wellbeing society also failed to notify the local children’s aid society that Misty was in their boundary of care.

“In fact, that children’s aid society didn’t even know about Misty’s presence until it was contacted by police after one of her disappearances,” Dubé noted.

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

AAFS did not respond to calls or emails from Global News with questions about the ombudsman’s findings.

Story continues below advertisement

This is also not the first time JCS has found itself in the crosshairs of an investigation.

JCS has a checkered history of non-compliance with ministry requirements, according to the ombudsman’s report.

The province shut down several of its homes in Thunder Bay following the death of 17-year-old Tammy Keeash, of North Caribou Lake First Nation. The teen was staying in one of the Johnson homes when she disappeared in May 2017. Her body was found a day later in a part of the city’s Neebing-McIntyre Floodway.

A report from 2019 by the former Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth revealed similar concerns about JCS’s care.

According to the OPACY report, which was first reported by APTN, one doctor provided a number of examples of “inappropriate conduct” by JCS staff caring for a youth who had to be hospitalized repeatedly.

The doctor said he was alarmed by the staff ordering pizza in his hospital’s emergency department, as well as them taking selfies there.

“The doctor then described what he felt to be the most serious incident: a young person was discharged from the hospital following a toxic Tylenol overdose and was immediately able to enter a drug store where she bought a bottle of Tylenol,” the report said. “She ‘drank’ it in front of the JCS staff members who ‘did nothing to stop her.’”

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'MPP Lisa Gretzky calls for end to for-profit care in Ontario child-welfare system'
MPP Lisa Gretzky calls for end to for-profit care in Ontario child-welfare system

In response to the OPACY report, JCS said the company underwent an agency-wide review in January 2017.

“HR practices, record keeping, training and policies were all updated. A new curriculum was established for training, and made mandatory for all foster parents, resource workers and supervisors,” the company said in response to the OPACY report. “Initial training under this new regimen was completed by the end of summer 2017. Senior staff completed Indigenous Cultural Awareness Training sessions.”

Data obtained by Global News through a freedom of information request also shows that JCS had a frequent issue with kids running away. Among foster care agencies, the company filed the fourth-most missing kids reports between 2020-2021.

In a phone call with Global News, Jay Johnson, the owner of JCS, declined to comment on the findings of the ombudsman report.

Story continues below advertisement

The ombudsman made 58 recommendations to the three welfare agencies which have all been accepted.

Some of the calls to action for JCS include that all of its foster parents and staff receive Indigenous cultural safety training and that staff provide accurate and timely information to police when a child goes missing.

AAFS, the ombudsman said, should ensure that staff carefully monitor the services provided under special rate agreements and do a better job of keeping track of documentation.

The ombudsman said the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services was not included in this investigation in order to avoid “scope creep,” which could lead to delays in improving the conditions for kids like Misty.

In a statement, MCCSS  said that the “events outlined in the Ombudsman’s report are unacceptable.”

“It’s our expectation that every child and youth should have a safe, loving, and stable home, regardless of whether they are in care,” said a spokesperson.

The ministry didn’t directly respond to a question about why JCS was allowed to keep its license to operate homes in southern Ontario after it was forced to shutter homes in Thunder Bay in 2017.

The province also moved to place licensing conditions on JCS in November 2022, which would prevent the company from accepting any new residents in foster homes or opening any new homes.

Story continues below advertisement

If you would like to share your experience working or living in the child-welfare system, please reach out to us in the form below.

Sponsored content