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Kids see group homes as 'gateways to jail': child advocate

CBC News, March 7, 2007

Almost half of Ontario's young offenders in detention for minor crimes came through the child welfare system, a report from the Office of Child and Family Service Advocacy shows.

The trend is a concern for child advocates across the country and Ontario Child Advocate Judy Finlay said many of the province's young people are beginning to think of group homes as "gateways to jail."

"We're taking them out of very difficult family circumstances, bringing them into state care and then we're charging them for their behaviour. It's very concerning to me," Finlay said.

The report, which was obtained by CBC News, lays much of the blame on group homes that rely too heavily on police to resolve problems that could be handled by staff.

Kids have been charged for everything from refusing to read a book or hitting someone with a tea towel, Finlay said. One group home in Ontario called police 400 times in a single year.

Don't call police for minor disturbances: minister

Ontario's Children and Youth Services Minister Mary Anne Chambers says calling police in to deal with trivial problems is never justified and would not happen if those children were living at home.

"It's very important to understand that these kids should be treated as though they're in homes, not in institutions," said Chambers. "When we have children in, for example, the province's child protection system, we the province are their parents."

'I don't think you should need any special training to understand that some of those behaviours are quite minor, maybe a little anti-social, but minor.'—Children and Youth Services Minister Mary Anne Chambers

While some in the child welfare field have said low wages and poor training of group home workers are part of the problem, Chambers rejected the claims.

"I don't think you should need any special training to understand that some of those behaviours are quite minor, maybe a little anti-social, but minor," said Chambers, adding that rates of pay in group homes are "not shabby."

Another problem facing the often troubled and vulnerable children entering group homes is the lack of mental health support, says Jeanette Lewis, the executive director of Ontario's Association of Children's Aid Societies.

"The childrens' mental health centres are facing some very long waiting lists and child welfare clients, even though they are children who are wards of the state, often do not get to the top of these lists," said Lewis, adding she wasn't surprised by the child advocacy office's statistics.

Teen says workers provoked him

Ontario is not the only province that needs to fix the system, Finlay's report says.

A sampling of facilities across Canada found that 57 per cent of young offenders had a connection to the child welfare system, the report said. In British Columbia, a recent study put that number at 73 per cent.
While some teens acknowledge the more serious charges may be warranted, they complain that too often, staff lack the training to deal with troubled kids and resort to calling police.

A teen, who can't be named under federal law, said workers would often provoke him. After he was charged, group home workers had an easy way to threaten him by suggesting a breach of his bail or probation conditions would mean a return to a young offenders facility.

"They threaten you and say you better read that book or you're going back to jail. Come on, what kind of system is this?" the teen said.

Finlay is calling on the province to collect data on police calls from group homes and the charges that result.

She also wants to see a mental health worker attached to each group home and higher standards for an industry that costs taxpayers more than $200 million a year.