Officials with the Department of Health and Social Services broke their silence on the subject of Yukon government group homes Friday when they hosted a media briefing about Transitional Support Services (TSS) for children and youth in government care.
CBC reporter Nancy Thomson broke the first of a series of stories about youth and staff allegations of wrongdoing in the Yukon government group home system last month.
Since then, the department has declined comment to the Star and other media outlets on the topic – deferring to Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost.
Leeann Kayseas, the acting manager of Family Services, told reporters at the Friday briefing that under no circumstances would a young person in a Yukon government group home be locked out.
There is also a 24-hour on-call line offered through the department that youth can call, or have someone call for them, if they ever feel they can’t go home, Kayseas said, that would make alternate arrangements for that youth.
If a youth showed up at his or her group home intoxicated, staff can also call the 24-hour line and a safe place for that youth to stay would be
Pressed by Thomson, who’s reported accounts from two youth who say they’ve been locked out of their group homes by staff in winter, and had to sleep in a bank foyer, Stephen Samis, Health and Social Services’ deputy minister, tried to clarify.
“I didn’t say it never happens. I said ‘we would not do that.’ We have a policy, by policy, we would not do that. By practice, we would not do that,” Samis said.
“I have to believe those youth, that this happened to them.”
Before going to the CBC, one of these youth sat down with Frost, Samis noted, and relayed to her the experience being locked out.
He outlined the events that followed, something the Opposition has been pressing the minister to clarify in the legislature.
“Our minister contacted me immediately, seriously concerned, and said, ‘you need to do something about this, you need to look into this, you need to take this seriously.’”
An “extensive internal review” is now being undertaken, Samis said.
The department is pulling every single incident report from the last three years. Officials are going through each one, assessing what the incidents were, how they were followed-up on, and what the eventual outcomes looked like.
The reports will then be categorized by theme, “so that we can get a better sense of what kinds of incidents have been reported, how have they been dealt with, and where do we need to do things differently,” Samis said.
“We’re also looking at policies and practices and procedures to ensure that we are doing things well, and that we are providing the very best and … safest care possible.”
He said the department could commit to provide some public information about the results gleaned from this review.
A number of other allegations about incidents in the government care system reported by the CBC were explicitly or implicitly contradicted by the information Samis and Kayseas provided.
“I know the details of that situation, I can’t speak about it in any detail, but I can tell you that that did not occur,” Samis responded when asked about a youth under a continuing custody order being denied a group home bed.
This concern was raised internally last December by a manager in the department named Jarrett Parker, according to a CBC story published last week.
It detailed Parker’s December email, and that he was let go from his employment with the department last Monday.
Kayseas also said a youth would never be compelled to give up a bed he or she occupied in a group home, as a youth told the CBC.
Nor, Kayseas said, would there ever be a situation where a child is denied government care based on being too high-risk, as Parker and the CBC reported a child was.
Samis declined to comment on individual human resources matters.
He could not confirm more generally whether anyone working in Yukon government group homes has lost his or her job in the last two months for not following departmental policies.
Questions about whistleblower safety have persisted in the legislative assembly since the CBC’s first group home story in March. The report of Parker’s employment being terminated saw the intensity of that questioning ratchet up further.
“Will the minister end this government’s witch hunt against whistle-blowers?” Yukon Party interim leader Stacey Hassard asked in question period last Thursday.
Richard Mostyn, the minister responsible for the Public Service Commission, said it would be inappropriate to discuss human resources matters on the floor of the house, but acknowledged that “this is a really difficult issue.
“I respect the media and its role in society ... I also have respect and confidence in the HR professionals in the Government of Yukon.
“I am committed to changing the legacy of fear in this civil service. Make no mistake about that,” Mostyn told the house.
“I will reiterate: when you come forward with legitimate concerns to this government, there will be no recriminations, and I stand by that on the floor of the house.”
Kayseas said Friday she has an “open-door” standard when it comes to staff who have a complaint to make, as do the assistant director, director, and her fellow managers, if staff don’t feel comfortable going forward to their direct supervisors.
“If they don’t feel safe there, I know they have their union, and I also know that they have the deputy minister and the … assistant deputy minister that they can go to,” Kayseas said.
As Frost and Mostyn have done publicly, Samis said he’s urged group home workers to report any concerns they might have.
“After there were media reports earlier about group homes, I made a point of going and visiting every group home in Whitehorse,” he said.
“I met with all of the staff, I handed them my card, and I left … stacks of cards in each of the offices, and I said to all of the staff, ‘If you see anything, if you hear anything, if you need to speak to someone, you have my card, you have my number, you have my email. Please contact me,’” Samis said.
The same goes for other departmental employees, he said.
“I guarantee the confidentiality and the security of that employee in bringing any information to my attention.”
Samis called Yukon government group home employees a “very highly-trained workforce.”
The vast majority have bachelor of social work degrees, and some have master’s and doctorate degrees, according to Samis. He said they go through a very significant orientation process, and have extensive training in trauma-informed care.
He also addressed questions about the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate’s independent systemic review of TSS, which some have said will not, or will not be perceived as, independent.
He stressed that the advocate is an independent officer of the legislative assembly, and is independent from the department.
To the suggestion that the government instead bring in someone from Outside to conduct the review, like a private company or someone from government in another jurisdiction, Samis stressed that they would have no more authority to order change than the advocate does.
“All anybody who is reviewing the department can do is make recommendations to us and help us to improve the way we do things.
“It’s up to us as a government body, and responsible back to the people of the Yukon, to make those changes and to be transparent in what changes we have and haven’t made and why or why not.”