A new report shows 117 children and youth in care in B.C. were placed in hotels in a recent 12-month period despite government claims the practice was rare and repeated orders that it happen only in extreme situations.
The joint review of hotel placements by Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond and the Ministry of Children and Family Development came in response to a high-profile death last September.
Alex Gervais, an 18-year-old in care, fell or jumped to his death from the fourth floor of an Abbotsford Super 8 hotel, where he had been housed by the ministry after his group home was shut down due to poor conditions.
At that time, Children and Family Minister Stephanie Cadieux suggested just one or two youths were thought to be in hotel placements.
Turpel-Lafond suspected the number was closer to 50 and said the count of 117 children from November 2014 to October 2014 – more than double her estimate – shows how pervasive the problem remains.
Some of those children were placed in hotels multiple times during the year, as a total of 131 placements were recorded.
Most hotel stays are short – just a day or two – and Cadieux said it's usually because of the need to urgently relocate youth until a conventional placement can be found, often on evenings or weekends.
But Gervais was an extreme case.
He spent 49 consecutive days in the Abbotsford hotel prior to his Sept. 18 death, the most recent of multiple hotel stays.
"The best guess we have is that Mr. Gervais spent close to 100 days in hotels over the period of his time in care," Turpel-Lafond said.
A further review of his case is underway and the ministry is required to report by March 31 or consent to an investigation by Turpel-Lafond's office.
"His death is a tragedy," Cadieux said. "It's a young life lost well too soon."
The South Fraser and North Fraser regions of the Lower Mainland recorded the highest use of hotels – 32 and 27 placements respectively – followed by 14 in Vancouver/Richmond and 12 by the Fraser Valley Aboriginal Children and Family Services Society.
The hotel placements make up two per cent of B.C. children in care, but that rose to six per cent in the North Fraser area.
Turpel-Lafond characterized the recurring use of hotels in those areas as "a stop-gap in lieu of having adequate placements."
But Cadieux said she believes better coordination of the placement options that exist could go far to reducing hotel use.
Cadieux said hotel stays remain an option of last resort and while she doesn't believe it's good practice she would set no target date for ending it.
Manitoba has banned all use of hotels but Cadieux said that comparison isn't appropriate because that province was using them systemically.
Turpel-Lafond said she would like to see a complete ban because of the harm hotel stays do but agreed it is not realistic.
"The pressures on the staff are such that they are not able to find alternative placements to hotels at this time."
Ministry staff must now report to the representative's office when any child is kept in a hotel longer than three days.
Social workers must get approval for hotel placements, which has been granted in all recent requests. Reports on hotel placements are to be made public every six months.
Cadieux said she also intends to bring a budget request to cabinet to provide more residential resources for emergency placements, particularly in the Fraser areas.
She indicated she may also propose increased remuneration or incentives to recruit or retain foster families.
"We want to eliminate hotel placements entirely," Cadieux said. "But government can't achieve that alone. We need more people to step up, get trained and work with us to provide kids in care with the stable homes that they need and that they deserve."