Child welfare agencies, families left in dark about ‘high-risk’ group homes, some linked to deaths

The Ontario government is failing to disclose the names of “high-risk” foster care and group homes to children’s aid societies – the organizations responsible for placing kids in care, Global News has learned.

Experts with decades of experience in Ontario’s child-welfare system say this is “hugely problematic” and a major obstacle in knowing where and with whom to safely place a child.

More than 12,000 kids — 17 years old or younger — were legally in the care of an Ontario children’s aid society (CAS) in 2019, according to the latest data.

These agencies are charged with investigating reports of abuse or neglect and can become a last resort for parents whose children become too challenging. In many cases, these vulnerable kids are placed in foster or group homes.

And while the province oversees licensing and inspections of these residences, Global News has learned there is no sharing of information about “high-risk” homes.

One of the companies flagged as potentially unsafe was the site of a fatal stabbing in 2019, while another company had failed to provide proper care for diabetic youth, according to ministry inspection reports.

“If you’re a young person going to live in a group home, shouldn’t you know that there are concerns about the home?” said Dawn Flegel, executive director of Sarnia-Lambton Children’s Aid Society.

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“Shouldn’t parents or caregivers or legal guardians know about what those concerns are?”

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The companies were identified by a team of specialized investigators the province assembled in 2017, in the wake of a string of deaths in Ontario group homes.

Known as the Intensive Site Review Team (ISRT), the team of five sifts through data from more than 430 licenced group homes and foster-care agencies to “identify high-risk residential sites.”

Read more: Inside Ontario’s ‘scary’ child-welfare system where kids are ‘commodities’

According to the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, which oversees the unit, those identified locations can be subject to unannounced visits and intensive site reviews.

The ministry, however, does not publicly disclose which companies are designated “high-risk” – and declined to explain its decision.

Global News was only able to obtain the names by filing a freedom of information request.

The documents do not explain the criteria for being deemed “high-risk.”

Over the past five years, the ISRT has inspected 15 operators of foster care agencies and group homes. Twelve are run by private, for-profit companies; three are not-for-profit. All of the homes receive public funding for each child in care – sometimes hundreds of dollars per child, per day.

Experts were alarmed that the existence of potentially problematic homes is not shared with children’s aid societies, Indigenous agencies, families or kids who are placed in care.

It’s part of a systemic problem, Flegel said, of a “cavern” in the lack of information about foster care and group-home operators. Not even routine inspection reports by the ministry are shared with children’s aid societies, Global News has learned.

“(The names of high-risk homes) should be, I think, public information,”  she said.

The Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said that “transparency and accountability are extremely important,” yet did not directly respond to questions about why it will not disclose the names of high-risk homes to children’s aid societies and Indigenous agencies.

Five months ago, the province began posting a list of foster care agencies and group homes on the ministry’s website, including any conditions imposed on a company’s licence. But the ministry said it was incumbent upon children’s aid societies to request copies of inspection reports for an operator.

“(Placing agencies) have an ongoing duty to monitor the safety and well-being of those children while they are receiving care in those settings,” said Jennifer Rushby, a spokesperson for the ministry in an email.

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Some of the companies under the ISRT’s watch, such as Mary Homes, Connor Homes and Enterphase, were the subject of a Global News/APTN investigation earlier this year.

At Connor Homes, images showed a bedroom ceiling had caved in from water damage and former workers said there were limited food or clothing budgets. At Mary Homes, former youth said staff were poorly trained and often restrained kids for no reason.

The investigation found that while private operators make up 25 per cent of the beds in the child welfare system, they filed 55 per cent of all serious occurrence reports (SORs) – reports required following incidents such as restraints, injuries, youth going missing and deaths.

The analysis, conducted by Global News, was based on a database of more than 10,000 SORs filed between June 2020 and May 2021. In just one year, there were at least 1,000 reports of serious injuries and more than 2,000 reports of physical restraints.

Calls for transparency

The calls for greater sharing of information about potentially unsafe homes, identified by the ministry, started years ago.

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Mary Ballantyne was the chief executive officer of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) from 2010-2019, which represents 49 CASs and Indigenous Child and Family Well-Being Agencies across the province.

She attended a high-level ministry meeting in 2018 where she said it was revealed the province had identified concerning group/foster home operators. Ballantyne asked for the names of those residences to be disclosed “immediately” with families and social workers who had children there.

“I did express my real concern about not sharing that list,” she said.

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

Were children’s aid societies to have more information about homes of concern, Ballantyne said, they would be able to remove kids or mitigate against any risks.

But the names of the potentially unsafe operators were never shared with Ballantyne, who retired at the beginning of 2019.

Nicole Bonnie, the current chief executive officer of OACAS, has also not seen any of the ISRT’s findings and said it is “vital” to receive this information in order to make the best placement assessments for kids.

“We cannot place a child in a home where harm is going to be done,” she said. “We are in the business of supporting children and youth… we have to assess risk on every level.”

ISRT created in wake of tragedies

According to Ballantyne, the creation of a special task force was spurred by several deaths inside foster and group homes.

In April 2017, Amy Owen, a 13-year-old from Poplar Hill First Nation, died by suicide at a Mary Homes residence in the Ottawa area. That same month, 16-year-old Courtney Scott perished in a fire at another Ottawa-area group home operated by Stepping Stones. She, too, was Indigenous.

Mary Homes has denied “all allegations of negligence” in Owen’s death. Stepping Stones declined to comment when reached by Global News.

But the catalyst, Ballantyne said, was a devastating fire in February 2017 at a foster home run by Connor Homes near Lindsay, Ont., which killed 14-year-old resident Kassy Finbow and a young worker, Andrea Reid.

Andrea Reid, left, and Kassandra Finbow, died in the February 2017 fire at a foster home operated by Connor Homes. GoFundMe

Finbow’s mother, Chantal, said the province still isn’t doing enough in the wake of her daughter’s death to protect kids from risky operators.

“(Kassy) wouldn’t want this to happen to another family,” Finbow said.

Her mother remembers her daughter as a “very bubbly, lively child” who loved gymnastics and dancing.

But after the age of five, she began displaying signs of aggression that got worse with time, becoming violent with her family and in some cases damaging their home.

Exhausted, and with no other options, she turned to Durham Children’s Aid Society, which placed Kassy at Connor Homes. Previous reporting from Global News and APTN found the company had been accused of underreporting serious incidents in its homes, received poor inspection reports, and often placed profits over the care of children, according to former workers and youths.

Read more: Docs. reveal ‘very comfortable’ lifestyle of Ont. youth home operator

Finbow wants the names of “high-risk” companies to be shared with all families that come into contact with the child welfare system – critical information that was not available at the time, for her or her daughter.

“If it was brought to my attention that (the home) was a high risk, I wouldn’t have put her in that home,” Finbow said.

Connor Homes did not respond to questions about why it was put under intense review by the ministry. The company has denied it was responsible for the fire and said the home had “complied with and exceeded the regulations of fire, health and licencing.”

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Previously one of the major players in Ontario’s child-welfare industry, Connor Homes surrendered its foster-care licence last spring but still operates group homes.

Troubled homes

When questioned as to why some of the companies came under the watch of specialized investigators, the ministry would not explain.

Group home operator Expanding Horizons Family Services Inc. was at one time examined by the ISRT. The company did not respond to questions from Global News.

In 2019, David Roman, 15, was stabbed to death by a 14-year-old at one of their residences in the Barrie area.

Some service providers, including Beacon Homes, which operated in Prescott, Ont., and Camey Group Home, near Ottawa, are closed. Several other homes contacted by Global News were unaware they were even listed.

Ministry inspection reports into some of the homes, obtained by Global News, revealed allegations of troubling living conditions.

At Camey Group Home in 2018, inspectors said they found a diabetic youth with dangerously low blood sugar who didn’t have access to blood-sugar tests. In another case, they noted a suicidal youth didn’t have a proper plan of care.

Inspectors also reported that kids living at Camey were subjected to body searches, in contravention of their right to privacy and provincial regulations.

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In 2019, the province moved to suspend Camey’s licence.  The company appealed the decision before surrendering its licence later that year.

Selwyn Pieters, a lawyer representing Camey, said the company was not prepared to comment on the inspection’s findings but said it “fully cooperated and responded fully to each and every allegation made against it.”

“(Camey Group Homes) being named on the Intensive Site Review Team list and deemed a ‘high-risk’ place for children to live was unreasonable and disproportionate,” Pieters said in an email. “(Camey) was a small operation that was being punished for the failings of large residential homes who had the resources to litigate and fight any issue raised by the Ministry, CAS or the police.”

For Flegel, executive director of Sarnia-Lambton CAS, the province can’t hide behind “the guise of privacy or confidentiality” in order to conceal critical information.

“We’re here for kids and families,” she said. “(The province) should share more information and make it available to the public.”

If you would like to share your experience working or living in the child-welfare system, please reach out to us at investigate@globalnews.ca

Read the full investigative series Profiting Off Kids on the Global News website.

– with additional reporting from Mikail Malik

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