Huricane Juan
Toronto Star
  • Shedding light on the troubles facing kids in group homes

    Several times every day in Toronto, vulnerable children and teenagers in group homes are being physically restrained by staff, being charged by police or running away.

    Their stories are briefly told in 1,200 Toronto reports describing “serious occurrences” filed to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services in 2013. Most involve children and youth in publicly funded, privately operated group homes.

    The Star obtained the reports in a freedom of information request and compiled them according to the type of serious event that occurred — something the ministry does not do. They note everything from medication errors to emotional meltdowns to deaths.

    And they shed light on the troubled lives of children placed in group or foster homes by children’s aid societies and desperate parents.

    There are 3,300 children and youth in 484 group homes in Ontario, according to the ministry. Those homes, along with foster parents and children’s aid societies, generate almost 20,000 serious occurrences filed province-wide every year.

    Yet the ministry does not know, for example, if physical and chemical restraints are being used more or less often over the years, or if more children are sustaining serious injuries while in care.

    How can practices be improved if no one is keeping province-wide track of what is going wrong?

    Kim Snow, a Ryerson University professor and researcher specializing in child and youth care, says flatly: “There’s no evidence that anybody is taking this seriously.”

    “If there is a child death, they become very interested and are all over us for as much information as possible,” says Raymond Lemay, former head of Valoris, the children’s aid society in Prescott-Russell, near Ottawa. “But for the other stuff, we report it and there is hardly a peep.”


    46 CAS agencies, 46 standards of care for vulnerable children

    A Star analysis of the two- or three-page occurrence reports, which had names and ages of children redacted, found:

  • Police are involved in four out every 10 incidents and are automatically called whenever youth go missing. Some homes are quicker to call police than others.
  • For kids on probation, missing a court-imposed curfew and ignoring house rules can lead to arrest, more charges and a date in court. The result is more involvement with a youth justice system that can follow young people into adulthood if they get into more criminal trouble.

    Some of the circumstances outlined in reports that led to police being called, such as damaging property, raise the question: would a parent or a foster parent be so quick to dial 911?

  • Children and youth are physically restrained in 35 per cent of serious occurrences. That number is low: some restraints are filed under headings other than “restraint.”
  • A restraint report typically involves the use of multiple physical holds. Some last a few seconds; the longest saw a girl held face-down for 65 minutes and injected with a tranquilizer. Few restraints resulted in reported physical injuries.

    The reports ask that the youth’s perspective on being restrained be included, but that section is often left blank.

  • Four out of five Toronto reports involve children in the care of a children’s aid society. Its workers are supposed to be notified if there’s a serious occurrence, but the Star found reports where the child was clearly in CAS care but there was no indication the caseworker had been brought into the loop.
  • Eight serious occurrences involved deaths. All were reported by the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. Four clearly involved infants not in group homes. Two others involved young patients with complex medical conditions who had do-not-resuscitate orders and were last living in a specialized group home.
  • One woman gave birth in a shelter, her baby dying when his head hit the floor. Another child died due to a possible cardiac arrest, brought on by a condition that was redacted. Another death involved a girl who collapsed during a home visit and died in hospital. She was otherwise healthy.

  • The language used by some group homes evokes an institutional setting rather than a nurturing environment. When children go missing, they are “AWOL.” In one instance in which a child acted out in front of peers, he was described as a “negative contagion.” Often, the reasons for behaviour are not noted. Children are in a “poor space” and are counselled not to make “poor choices.” Blame is always placed on the child.
  • In 10 cases, youths at a single mental health treatment centre who alleged abuse were released back into potentially dangerous family environments before the results of a CAS investigation were known.
  • Record-keeping is not standardized. Several different forms are used to report serious occurrences. Medication errors, which the forms classify as “serious injuries,” are wrongly entered by some homes. And the level of detail varies widely.
  • Last week, the Ministry of Children and Youth Services announced a wide-ranging review of group homes after the Star presented it with a list of questions based on the serious occurrence data. A panel of experts is to report this fall.

    “Doing this review is going to help us bring together the complete picture of what’s going on, both in terms of the number you’re talking about on restraints or police involvement, but also in terms of how are kids doing,” Tracy MacCharles, the children and youth minister, said in an interview.

    The ministry wants to know if children in group homes “are getting the best possible supports,” she added.

    Ontario’s 46 children’s aid societies are private, non-profit corporations. They are regulated by the government and have the legal power to take children from their parents for reasons ranging from physical abuse to neglect. Most children are returned to their parents within a year, after some form of help is provided.

    Those in continued need of protection are made Crown wards after a court decision. They’re placed in foster or group homes, or with relatives, and are monitored by children’s aid societies, which are responsible for their care.

    Lemay, formerly of the Prescott-Russell children’s society, says he doesn’t think occurrence information is “collected rigorously across the province. And I’d be wary about low numbers because there’s an incentive not to report” to avoid looking bad.

    Irwin Elman, Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, says its time the ministry and children’s aid societies take responsibility for their charges rather than continually passing the buck.

    “I am fed up with that dance,” says Elman. “I will not listen to it any more.”

    The serious occurrence results are part of a year-long investigation by the Star into Ontario’s child protection system, made up of 46 privately run children’s aid societies receiving $1.4 billion annually from the provincial government. The investigation has revealed a secretive system that has little information on how children in its care are faring, and that fails to act on the data it has.

    Ministry budget data between 2008 and 2013 obtained by the Star show that children’s aid societies paid for 3.5 million days of group care. But there was a steady decline over that period from 790,000 days to 615,000 days.

    The cost of placing a child in a group home ranges from about $200 to $350 per day, to much more in individual cases where a child’s needs require deeper specialization.

    Bob Hanrahan, who owns and runs group and foster homes from Niagara to Durham region, says there are certainly youths in group care who would be better off with foster parents. He says a current “big push” among children’s aid societies aims to reduce the number in group homes.

    The province does not post a list of licensed group homes on the ministry website. Nor does it make public annual group home inspection reports.

    There are no minimum qualification requirements to work in a group home. Snow, the Ryerson professor, says staff are often young and inexperienced. High turnover doesn’t help. Keeping youth under control is too often the goal.

    Some homes are doing “not much better than warehousing” kids, Snow says, while others provide quality care. Improving quality for all requires more qualified staff and decent wages to keep them there, she adds.

    “Some children require residential care, and we know that,” continues Snow, who worked in group homes before joining Ryerson. “But when we provide it, it should be the highest quality care, and that’s not the current standard.”


    Tough times in Toronto group homes

    Physical restraint common in Toronto group homes and youth residences

    Toronto group homes turning outbursts from kids into matters for police

    The reporters can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it '; document.write( '' ); document.write( addy_text74889 ); document.write( '<\/a>' ); //-->\n This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

  • TTC?s reputation riding on the Pan Am Games, says transit co-ordinator

    There’s a lot riding on the Toronto Transit Commission’s Pan Am performance, not least a shot at redemption for the transit system’s public image.

    The woman leading the TTC Games effort believes the system will do better than limp across the finish line.

    Sho Kalache, 32, considers herself a persuasive person. She expects the much-maligned transit system — not always known for its sunny public face — to shine and its workers and riders to be part of the city’s celebrations.

    “We’re trying to remind all staff this is a fun event,” says Kalache, who joined the TTC as a driver 10 years ago. “We want the customer experience to be as nice as possible. The majority of people will likely not be regular transit users, so we’ll have to remind everyone to be a little more patient.”

    She is organizing an army of 1,700 behind-the-scenes TTC workers — everyone from lawyers to engineers to secretaries — who have volunteered to work at least three shifts each as Games ambassadors.

    They’ll fan out across 23 designated TTC Games transportation hubs in blue smocks and caps to guide the thousands of visitors and spectators pouring through the system this summer.

    Behind the scenes, Kalache and a pan-TTC team are applying military precision to preparations aimed at minimizing and, if possible, eliminating, the failures and obstacles that typically plague Toronto transit.

    Dozens of projects, from paving to elevator and escalator overhauls, will be completed or paused. Any work still going on will be invisible to the public.

    The TTC has significantly reduced summer vacations among its staff, so in addition to the ambassador volunteers, there will be crews and drivers standing by to get the system up and running as quickly as possible in the event of a failure.

    Normally TTC ridership drops in the summer, but an additional 53 buses in the morning and again in the evening will be available to move crowds to and from the Games.

    It’s her front-line experience and eye for detail that won Kalache the job, says her boss, TTC deputy CEO Chris Upfold. He worked at the London Underground during the 2012 Olympics and says that understanding crowds and station operations will be critical for the Pan Ams.

    “Sho is sweating the small stuff,” he says.

    Upfold also believes Kalache exemplifies the TTC’s and Toronto’s diversity.

    Born to Armenian parents in Saudi Arabia, she has lived in Toronto since she was 3. She and her wife are “typical Junction residents who believe our neighbourhood is amazing,” says Kalache, who plays basketball in a women’s league but has taken a break from her cross-fit training while she prepares for the Pan Ams.

    In an operation with so many moving parts, there’s plenty of room for error, admits Kalache, who works with teams inside the TTC as well as co-ordinating with the Games, the city, the Ministry of Transportation and Metrolinx.

    Her biggest fear she says, “would be something outside of Pan Am that would drain our resources, that we didn’t plan for. Forgetting something or missing something — that’s what I worry about.”

    Despite all the preparation and the front-line training that is supposed to help make the TTC the friendlier way during the Games, Kalache cautions that riders should be prepared for crowds.

    Walk or bike if that’s a reasonable option, she counsels. Every sports ticket acts as a day pass for transit, so there will be lots of people who don’t necessarily know their way around the system. Consider avoiding travel during rush hours.

    “We’re trying to make it as comfortable as we can,” Kalache says. “If you’re attending the Games, give yourself extra time. Don’t be upset if there’s crowds. That’s not avoidable no matter how much service we put out there.”

  • Ottawa accused of racial profiling of Roma travellers

    A couple of months ago, Eva Kalla was invited to visit her friends in Toronto from Hungary where she was grieving her husband’s recent death.

    At the airport in Vienna, the Roma Hungarian writer was referred by airline staff to a Canadian border official, who refused to let her board her flight to Toronto even though citizens from the European Union state are exempted from the visa requirement.

    “The woman asked me a series of questions: What the purpose of my trip was, how much money I had, who had paid for my airfare, and where I had gotten so much money. I explained I had no intention of immigrating to Canada. I had a job and my children in Hungary,” said Kalla, 60. “I was treated like a criminal. They made me feel as if I had committed a serious crime. I am concerned that I was discriminated against based on my appearance, and that my intentions and the purpose of my travel were presumed based on such irrelevant factors.”

    The Canadian Romani Alliance said complaints of racial profiling by community members against Canadian border officials started trickling in around 2011, when asylum claims from Hungarian Roma peaked at 4,400 after visa restrictions were removed by Canada for visitors from Hungary.

    Claims from Hungary have since declined dramatically, after it was designated by Canada as one of the “safe countries” in late 2012 for expedited processing of claims. Last year, only 400 claims came from Hungary, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board.

    “Even though Roma do not need a visa to come to Canada, they are kept out of the country. This is a form of discrimination, an example of racial profiling by the Canadian government,” said Gina Csanyi-Robah, the alliance’s co-founder and executive director.

    Toronto immigration lawyer Peter Ivanyi said he has heard of Canada-bound Roma travellers being refused boarding in Warsaw and Budapest as well: “We really don’t know the extent of the problem because these people have no appeal rights and there isn’t any redress to it. But if someone gets pulled off a flight because he or she appears to be Roma, it’s just blatantly racist.

    “Anyone has a right to make a refugee claim as long as they are eligible. You can’t pre-empt that,” Ivanyi said.

    Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, the party’s critic for rights and freedoms and international justice, agreed. So many of the refugee claims from Hungary and Slovakia turn out to be legitimate, there should be no additional barriers to those seeking asylum here, he said.

    “It is possible that more applicants from these countries would have been accepted if they had access to the full refugee claim system,” he said.

    Canada Border Services Agency said it does not have statistics on the number of rejected travellers from Hungary or other visa-exempt countries but said airlines are prohibited from carrying to Canada a passenger lacking prescribed documents — or a passenger an officer indicates should not be carried. “CBSA liaison officers work with the airlines to protect the integrity of Canada’s immigration system and the security of the Canadian border through information gathering, interdiction efforts, investigations and liaison activities,” said agency spokesperson Line Guibert-Wolff.

    “While the CBSA provides guidance and support to commercial transportation companies to help meet their legal obligations, it is ultimately the decision of the transportation company to either allow the passenger to board or to deny them boarding based on the documentation provided.” Airlines found to have carried an improperly documented foreign national to Canada, however, will be fined for up to $3,200 per passenger and liable for additional removal and medical costs, Guibert-Wolff added.

    “All persons, including Canadian citizens, seeking entry to Canada are subject to the same rules and regulations regardless of nationality, race and/or gender,” she added.

    Vendel Orsos of Hedrehely, a village southwest of Budapest, had planned a three-week vacation in May to visit his sister Zsuzanna in Toronto with his wife Valeria Laszlo and daughters Kornelia, 6, and Boglarka, 4.

    “We joined the lineup for the pre-boarding check of our passports . . . and were asked to step aside. I answered all the questions,” recalled Orsos, 31, a lumberjack.

    “In the end, the translator told me that these questions were a kind of test that I had failed, and that we would not be allowed to travel to Canada because they suspected we wanted to seek refugee status in Canada.”

    The family said they felt humiliated being pulled from the queue and stared at by bystanders, let alone having to explain to everyone in their village that they were not allowed to visit relatives in Canada.

    “We have Hungarian passports and we don’t need a visa to Canada, so what kind of document can we obtain from Canada that would ensure we can go and visit our relatives?” asked Laszlo.

    “While we understand Canada wants to protect itself from illegal immigrants, not all Romas are illegal immigrants or refugee seekers just because they are not rich," he said.

    “People should be judged based on merits and not the colour of their skin or where they live.”

Arts & Letters
Sunday, 12 August 2007