New Brunswick launches new model of care for youth with complex needs

·5 min read
The province's Social Development Department has officially launched a new tool in its collection of services for children who are in the legal care of the minister. (Costea Andrea M/Shutterstock - image credit)
The province's Social Development Department has officially launched a new tool in its collection of services for children who are in the legal care of the minister. (Costea Andrea M/Shutterstock - image credit)

Some young children with complex needs living in group homes are being prepared to move in with adults who will be paid to stay at home and focus on the child's care.

A child under 12 has already been placed in the province's first professional care home, and seven more homes are due to come onstream within the next few months.

"Some are up and running and some are in the training phase," said Bruce Fitch, minister of social development.

It marks the official launch of a new tool in the department's continuum of services for children who are in the legal care of the minister.

Fitch said professional care homes are more specialized than foster homes. Adults may have received addiitonal training in areas such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, non-violent crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

They also have access to wraparound services to help them respond to the child's needs, whether they're emotional, behavioural, medical or related to mental health or trauma. In case of an emergency, the adult also has access to a 24-hour crisis line.

More family-like than group homes: minister

Professional care homes are more stable and family-like than group homes, Fitch said.

Group homes are run by non-profit agencies who rely on employees and volunteers to care for as many as six children in one residence. Children may stay in the homes for a few weeks or much longer.

The job pays up to $3,500 per month, plus a monthly benefit of $1,729 to cover costs specific to the child's care plan.

In its first call for interest, the province said it got 80 inquiries and 20 applications.

"It's encouraging that people are willing to put their hands up," said Fitch. "Because it's a difficult job."

He said a second round of recruitment has begun, with the aim of starting a second phase of eight homes. 
The goal is to have a total of 16 professional care homes operational in 2023.

Shane Magee/CBC
Shane Magee/CBC

John Sharpe, executive director of Partners for Youth, said he is pleased to hear the new model of care is starting to take off.

Group homes fill a need, he said, but they're not ideal for young children.

"They don't provide the best opportunity to give kids a chance at really feeling like part of a family," he said.

"They're shift-model driven. You see new faces three times a day, new staff on the weekend. It's difficult to form long-lasting relationships."

Sharpe said the key to the success of the professional care home model will be ongoing training and "bombarding them" with support.

"These will be challenging placements," he said. "It's going to be very hard work but very rewarding work."

Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada
Michel Corriveau/Radio-Canada

Filling the gap

The new model is a response to problems identified in 2019 by Kim MacPherson, who was the New Brunswick's auditor general at that time.

MacPherson said then that poor planning and limited placement options were putting some of the province's most vulnerable children at risk.

"Inadequate care of these children can have disastrous consequences, contributing to suicide attempts, addictions, long-term mental health challenges and homelessness," MacPherson said in her report.

She observed that the number of children with complex needs, such as aggression, self-harm and suicidal tendencies, had been rising.

Meanwhile, the number of foster homes in New Brunswick had fallen by 30 per cent over five years.

These conditions, she found, were putting pressure on the department to place children under the age of 10 –  and even under the age of five –  into group homes.

AGNB/Department of Social Development
AGNB/Department of Social Development

This despite a wide agreement among department personnel, group home operators and other stakeholders that younger children "are best served in placements other than group homes."

She also pointed out that group homes are more costly. While the annual cost of keeping a child in foster care was about $10,000 in 2018, the annual cost of keeping a child in a group home was about $171,000.

Use of specialized placements has doubled 

MacPherson also flagged that specialized placements were the most costly option of all.

These are special accommodations reserved for the province's most complex cases. Usually, the province hires a third-party agency to operate a home owned by the department. That agency then hires enough staff to supervise the youth 24 hours a day.

In 2020, CBC News reported on one specialized placement located in a rural home owned by the province that required two to three staff members on site at all times.

It took multiple shifts of workers to care for one boy around the clock, seven days a week. He was 11 years old when the department moved him in.

In 2018, MacPherson said the province was operating 15 specialized placements at an annual cost of $470,000 each.

CBC News filed a request under the Right to Information and Privacy Act, asking for an update on how many specialized placements were operating last year and what they cost.

The province recently provided that information. In 2020-2021, the Department of Social Development said it operated 30 specialized placements at an average annual cost of $370,000 per placement.

That would suggest the total cost of operating all 30 homes in 2020-2021 surpassed $11 million.

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