Foster-care system being revamped in wake of boy's death in Barrie home

·9 min read

Editor's note: The following is Part 3 of a three-part series.

Efforts to fix problems at foster homes since David Roman’s death two years ago, some of which were previously identified, need to come quickly, say observers.

During the winter of 2018-19, Irwin Elman was wrapping up his investigation into the foster-home system before the provincial government permanently closed the Ontario Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.

That was about the same time David, who was 15, was sent to live in a Barrie group home with three other boys. Two months later, on Feb. 19, 2019, David was dead and another youth was charged with first-degree murder.

The report from the provincial child advocate, released the month after David was killed but unrelated to that event, outlined a series of problems in Ontario’s for-profit residential care, or foster homes. Elman said he hasn’t seen those issues addressed in the two intervening years and that those problems still exist.

“There has been nothing done” to improve the situation, he said. “There’s a lot that could be done.”

David’s parents have launched a lawsuit and the young foster parent assigned to run the home has launched two others. Their claims paint a picture of a home operating with little oversight and support.

“It’s heartbreaking. These are people who are refugees to Canada to come for a better life and thought they could rely upon a government agency to help them and on any standard they weren’t helped. It’s so frustrating,” said Alex Van Kralingen, the lawyer representing the dead boy’s parents in a $3.75-million civil suit against the boy accused in David’s death, the home’s operators, the foster parent, the children’s aid societies in Simcoe County, York Region and Hamilton and the Barrie Police Services Board.

“As I dug into this, I realized that this is sadly not the first case of something like this happening," the lawyer added.

The foster parent, Jordan Calver, has launched an $11-million claim against the home’s operators, the Hamilton Children’s Aid Society as well as the boy charged in David’s death. He has launched a separate $6-million lawsuit against the provincial government represented by the minister of children, community and social services.

“The reason his claim exists is he wants to make sure nothing like this ever happens again,” said Calver's lawyer, Michael Warfe. “And to make sure that there’s justice for David. The two of them had a bond in their short time together and it’s a horrible tragedy what happened.”

Calver was 23 when he was given the job of running the foster home for four boys for which he said he received very little training. His statement of claim outlines efforts he alleges he made to access help and support from the company running the home and some of the challenges he faced in the days and weeks leading up to David’s killing.

It also describes the devastating impact the experience and David’s death has had on him.

“He has been trying to carry on as best he can since it happened, but that’s been challenging,” said Warfe.

Warfe hopes the provincial government can “take decisive” steps to ensure what happened to David doesn’t happen to someone else.

“Hopefully, these cases help move the needle toward the government doing something to ensure the kids in foster care are looked out for. And I think that starts with overseeing some of these companies," the lawyer said.

Meanwhile, Frank Le Greco from Expanding Horizons Family Services Inc., the home's operators, said the information that has been reported is missing "key components," but he wouldn't say what they are or comment on the situation further, other than to say it will come out eventually.

IMPLEMENTING CHANGE

The responding agencies won’t discuss the situation involving David, but all say efforts to improve conditions at foster homes are ongoing. They point to improvements to information sharing between children’s aid societies and the need to address systemic issues to improve the care the kids receive.

As a placement agency, the executive director for Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions — an organization which amalgamated the Simcoe Children’s Aid Society and Family, Youth and Child Services of Muskoka in 2015 — says residential services are largely provided by service providers and agencies licensed by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services and that it relies on “strong oversight and licensing processes.”

“Since the tragedy in 2019, much work has been done to continually improve the residential services system” to improve gaps in the system identified in reports and inquiries, wrote executive director Geraldine Dooley-Phillips in an emailed response.

“We are fully committed to continuing to improve our practices," Dooley-Phillips added. "But work still needs to be done because we know that serious systemic issues — ranging from the quality of care provided in residential services, the need for more robust staff training, and the need for an improved system of licensing and oversight — must be addressed by residential service providers, government, and child welfare together in partnership.”

Hamilton Children’s Aid Society communication manager Tracy MacIsaac added in an emailed statement that the “timely access to well-funded, local and culturally appropriate services from across all sectors” was also identified. That work for community and social services, health and mental health, education and youth justice continues in partnership with the government, other service providers and community organizations is ongoing.

“The loss of a life, especially of a child or youth, is always a tragedy and my heart goes out to the family and community impacted. It is incredibly devastating, and I feel for those involved,” Simcoe North MPP Jill Dunlop, who also serves as associate minister of Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, said in a statement.

“I am focused on making tangible changes to Ontario’s child welfare system so children and youth have access to services that are high quality and truly responsive to their specific needs," Dunlop added. "And while our government has already made progress, we know there is much more to do. We will continue to work to build a better system for every child, youth and family in need.”

Hannah Anderson, communications director for Dunlop, said in a statement the government is redesigning the child welfare system, laying “the foundation for transformative change, both immediate and long-term” through the Child Welfare Redesign Strategy.

Home operators, or residential licensees, are now required to get three references from foster-parent applicants, conduct interview and health assessments, do physical inspections of the proposed foster home, and secure police record checks and vulnerable sector screening.

The plan includes a new quality standards framework addressing the need for staff and foster parents to have educational qualifications, skills, ongoing training and experience.

Immediate changes already implemented include increasing the number of unannounced licensing inspections, 20 more staff to provide oversight and free introductory trauma-informed care training for front-line workers in residential settings.

Future initiatives, including proposals to enhance screening and training requirements to increase the capacity of residential staff and caregivers, are beginning “in the coming weeks.”

But government staff say redesigning the child welfare system from a culture of apprehension and providing reactive services to a more proactive and prevention approach will take time.

“Some improvements have been immediate, some are being developed and phased in over the course of the next two to three years and others will be even longer,” a government spokesperson added.

SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS

That’s not good enough, said Elman, who, after his 11 years as the child advocate, continues to work for change, including helping develop a new child death review system with the Ontario coroner.

“It’s unconscionable for a minister that’s responsible… to say I’ll leave you in this situation for two or three years and maybe by then I’ll have some kind of a plan to do something about it,” he said.

During his 11 years serving as Ontario Child Advocate, Elman said it had become clear there were systemic problems with privately run foster homes. That last report was issued as a result of an investigation he said his office had to fight to be given the right to conduct.

His office was also involved in previous reports, including one focusing on the young person’s point of view in residential care addressing problems and another with the coroner of Ontario examining the deaths of 12 people in Ontario group homes.

“They all basically said the same thing: There’s a problem, there’s limited if no accountability in terms of who is looking out for the children who live in these residential care homes” apart from a licensing process that he said had no oversight and doesn’t get into the standard of care.

They found there were no standards for those who could work in a group home and no minimum qualifications, with wages similar to those in the fast-food industry.

“And yet the people in Ontario residential care… are dealing with perhaps some of the most fragile young people that are going to exist in the province,” he said. “The last place they’re placed is in a group home and there young people, and some staff, refer to that group home as storage — a place where young people are kept, hopefully safe, until they’re dumped out at 18, on their own.”

None of the reports, he said, generated substantial action.

ADVOCATING FOR CHANGE

For child rights advocate Jane Kovarikova, who was raised in Barrie’s foster-care system, David’s death is heartbreaking.

“Having grown up in care myself, stories like this… I just find them absolutely horrific,” said Kovarikova, who founded the Child Welfare Political Action Committee Canada (Child Welfare PAC) in 2017. “It’s really unacceptable. This needs to be the last one.”

She is also a member of the Simcoe Muskoka Family Connexions board of directors, although she stressed she was not commenting in that capacity.

Kovarikova is working on her PhD as a political science candidate at Western University while hoping to effect change in the child welfare system, which she says is needed.

What she wants to see is cultural change focusing on accountability and outcome measurements.

One of Child Welfare PAC Canada's goals is to encourage colleges and universities to provide tuition-free opportunities for former foster children.

“I wish that there was a point where people who end up in care, of course acknowledging how horrible their earlier start was and the experience in care can be at times, that they have just a moment of reprieve and they’re excited that, you know what, at least school’s paid now” with the prospect of of a silver lining, Kovarikova said.

“A degree is very transformative, you have a lot more confidence. It makes a world of change. That’s what levels the playing field for kids like me," she added.

Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, barrietoday.com