Blue sky, red light — a disturbance all right!

The discussion about group homes and staffed residential care in our communities ought to be focused on how to support them, not deny them

Several communities in the province have recently made headlines concerning new local residential group homes, a type of home where infants, children and youth up to 18 years old may be placed—when it’s in the child’s best interest—as a result of protective intervention. As of June 30, Child, Youth and Family Services provided protective intervention services to 5,060 children (ages 0-15), and 920 children and youth are in government custody.

Blue Sky Family Care is a private agency that provides emergency and residential care to children in state custody and has been contracted by the government to take some of its business beyond the overpass. While the agency is new to communities like Marystown, Grand Falls-Windsor, Stephenville and Corner Brook, it has been operating in the metro area for a number of years. Of the 101 placements negotiated over the past year, Blue Sky is one of the four service providers that were chosen for these contracts.

Last March a provincial government news release explained the government’s new four-level Continuum of Care Strategy. The strategy recognizes skills and experience of foster parents, which can enable better matches to meet the needs of children and youth. As it explains, the strategy consists of four levels: “level one kinship homes, level two foster homes, level three specialized foster homes, and level four staffed residential placements.” These level four staffed residential placements are the ones making the stir (not foster homes, as some sources have mistakenly reported).

According to news reports, several municipalities have attempted to either block Blue Sky from operating, revoked their permit to operate, or in Stephenville’s case, sought a ruling at the Supreme Court level to disallow the company from establishing a group home there. Concerns about violence, vandalism or disturbance in the community have been cited as concerns.

I can understand why residents and towns would be thrown off by some of the behaviours of the children and youth in these homes, or certain policies that an organization like Blue Sky would use to manage them. For example, John Whelan (Director of Operations with Blue Sky) explained to CBC that “when a person of a certain age is late for their curfew, staff are obligated to call the local police. Staff have no discretion on the issue and are required to follow the policy” — and this is because the policy is mandated by Child, Youth and Family Services. Evidently, when it comes to taking care of children and youth who have a vast range of individual needs, a little acceptance goes a long way.

Besides, the detailed care plan for a child is not information for the public. Justifying decisions like why local police were called might be impossible without violating a child’s right to confidentiality (which always comes first). In addition, town councils have suggested that the provincial government left them out of a process they would have liked to be part of. But as a former child and youth worker myself, I’m stuck on this question: What could possibly matter more right now than the lives directly impacted? That is to say, the children and youth in protection who have to do all the moving around because adults can’t seem to get it together.

Real people

Alternative living arrangements like group homes are a tough concept to grasp for anyone who has been lucky enough to grow up in an environment that didn’t witness or require intervention. The challenges that the affected families face—mental illness, violence, addictions, abuse and disability—are all deeply rooted in systemic inequalities in our province. Furthermore, Newfoundland’s recent history with the physical and sexual abuse that happened at the Mount Cashel Orphanage and elsewhere has unfortunately tainted our collective understanding of how group homes can work.

With the stigma surrounding the issues that some families face, the false assumptions, and confidentiality policies in place to protect the people involved, it’s tough for some to grasp the day to day realities of what these “level four staffed residential placements” are all about. However, staff tend to be highly dedicated to improving the lives of the young people in care, and diverse input from staff at all levels—and professionals like doctors, therapists and social workers—ensure high standards for care.

 All parties involved should be doing everything in their power to ensure that these children have the chance to build secure attachments instead of dancing around neighbourhood preferences and permits.

Child and youth workers are classified in the National Occupational Classification System under category 4212: Social and Community Service Workers. Take a look at the employment requirements and main duties associated with their field and how those at Blue Sky are expected to measure up.

Add heaps of compassion, patience and a loving presence and those are the people working in these group homes. They are experienced. They are educated. They manage crisis situations and varying behaviours that would put most people in shock. Although it might be hard to appreciate some of the methods or routines in place, believe me when I say that these workers are highly effective in what they do when they’re given the resources to do it. And a lot of the time—in fact, precisely when you give these workers the time to do their job—the youth do grow and progress in so many ways.

Imagine what it’s like to be a child or young person in this situation. These children and youth are asked to pack a few belongings and move away from their families to live with an unfamiliar group of staff for a while. They are then usually moved several more times—each time building new relationships only to learn that these relationships are short term—until they are finally placed somewhere that can accommodate them for a longer period.

The importance of having a sense of secure attachment cannot be overstated when it comes to trauma-informed care. But if each complaint from a neighbour resulted in a move, these young people would never have the chance to form those relationships. All parties involved should be doing everything in their power to ensure that these children have the chance to build secure attachments instead of dancing around neighbourhood preferences and permits.

Improving the field for the long haul

Photo by US Nessie via Wikimedia Commons.
Photo by US Nessie via Wikimedia Commons.

A recurring issue amid the media frenzy is the provincial government’s role in this process. Government decides who will be placed in these homes, which homes they will be placed in, and with whom. Some questions worth asking are: What criteria are in place for the agencies that place bids on contracts? What are the benefits and risks associated with different types of placements, and how is it decided what’s best for each case? How might communities be better supported while still honouring families’ privacy? How does the unpredictable nature of child and youth care impact the workers from a labour perspective, and how might that be improved?

The issue of child and youth care workers not being adequately compensated is another important element of this discussion. Ultimately, they are not paid nearly enough across the country (with a median hourly wage of $16.15 on the Avalon), and the pros and cons of profit-seeking versus non-profit care provision raises a series of questions that have no simple answer.

Agencies that do this work vary in their financial structures, and funding affects the quality of care available to the young people needing it. Whereas child and youth care is a field that relies heavily on relationship-building, employee turnover rates and compensation and benefits are issues that need to be examined for all agencies and the unions that may represent them. If this is the issue people have with Blue Sky, fair enough. But addressing compensation issues for support staff is a separate issue from whether to open a group home. Like the criticism that’s been directed at elected officials at this time, this ignores the impact that the controversy and debate has on the children and youth involved.

Déjà vu

In 2011, when the opening of a mental health treatment facility was announced, some residents of Paradise took issue and protested at a public meeting. The classic “not in my backyard” opposition was heard loud and clear. Neighbourhood residents were concerned about what kinds of crime might follow, or how it might change or influence the neighbourhood or their kids. In that case, intolerance and fear formed pre-emptive judgements and led to resistance. I see the same intolerance and fear reflected in the present debates.

The real disturbance, as I see it, are the complaints of residents and municipal governments, who are making these living arrangements less accessible and less comfortable for the children and youth who need them. I fear some may be weighing their short term reactive worries over the current and long term needs of these children and youth.

 I  fear some may be weighing their short term reactive worries over the current and long term needs of these children and youth.

What will it take for these “concerned” people to be satisfied? When the children and youth are moved to totally different parts of the island, away from their familiar surroundings? When the families affected are even further marginalized, by making it that much more difficult for them to obtain the resources they need? Where exactly should group homes belong?

Whether you’re a concerned neighbour, a town councillor, an agency representative or government official, it’s time to cut the crap and focus on making these children feel safe and secure in their new space.

After that, see to the workers who care for these children, because their job requires a healthy body, mind and spirit. These are the most effective ways of improving residential care facilities in our province.

We should all look around (I’m especially talking to you, elected representatives) and take proactive measures to prevent something like this debacle from ever happening again, especially to the province’s most vulnerable people — and our future.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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