ABBOTSFORD, B.C. — British Columbia’s representative for children says her trust in the provincial government has been shaken after she claims she was misled into believing that no kids in care were being housed in hotels.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond issued a sharp rebuke following the death of 18-year-old Alex Gervais, an aboriginal teen in care who was killed after falling from a fourth-floor window of an Abbotsford hotel last Friday.
“Very little can assuage my concern today about what has happened to this child,” said Turpel-Lafond in an interview on Thursday. “It matters not to me whether it was intentional or not unintentional. There’s a boy that’s dead.”
She said B.C.’s commitment to her to keep children in provincial care safe has been broken.
Turpel-Lafond sent a scathing letter to the childrens’ ministry on Wednesday asking for an explanation for the apparent deception. She also demanded written assurance that, effective immediately, no youth would be placed in hotels or in single-room-occupancy living quarters and that youth currently housed in such circumstances would be moved as soon as possible.
Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux explained that hotels are used to house children in care only in extreme circumstances and policy requires that the ministry be notified whenever this takes place.
“What we learned when the tragedy happened in Abbotsford was that notification had not occurred, and that’s not OK,” said Cadieux. “We weren’t informed.”
Following Gervais’ death, the ministry discovered that another child is housed in a hotel, though Cadieux said her child welfare director assured her the situation falls within the ministry’s guidelines.
An internal review will be launched to discover why the policy wasn’t followed, she added.
Turpel-Lafond stressed that her office has no difficulty interacting with the ministry’s front-line workers and directed her condemnation towards upper management.
“Who would actually believe them when they tell you they’re adamant no kid will be in a hotel and then a young person is in a hotel in crisis and dies,” she said. “Will I take what they tell me at face value ever again? Probably not.”
Gervais had been living in a hotel for about two months after the province shut down the group home where he had been living over safety concerns, said Turpel-Lafond.
Turpel-Lafond said the young man was in distress and may have taken his own life. Abbotsford police said Thursday they don’t suspect foul play in the death.
A report from Turpel-Lafond’s office published in December 2014 describes hotels as costly and non-therapeutic placement options and urged the ministry to publicly report whenever they are used as temporary measures.
B.C. New Democrat Leader John Horgan said he was appalled by the news of Gervais’ death and called for Cadieux’s resignation
“I’m absolutely horrified that the government seems to have yet again left our most vulnerable in a situation that’s led to a fatality,” he said. “We need to stop defending the ministry and start defending children.”
When asked, Cadieux said she was not willing to comment on whether she would consider resigning.
The NDP critic for children and family development, Doug Donaldson, noted the government cut $100 million from the ministry’s budget between 2008 and 2013.
“I think the minister is destroying the credibility of her ministry,” he said.
— By Geordon Omand in Vancouver
— Follow @gwomand on Twitter
The Canadian Press