'A child who was crying out for help'

Youth advocate issues damning report; minister acknowledges system failed boy

Published on December 4, 2013

There were a lot of questions following the shocking, early morning fire Nov. 17, 2011 in which a 54-year-old man died in a St. John’s boarding house set ablaze by a troubled 16-year-old boy living in the same house.

The boy had ignited his mattress and called 911. No longer with his family, he had been living in the house on Springdale Street for seven months.

Four other men escaped the fire.

When firefighters and police arrived on the scene that morning, the teen was on his knees on the sidewalk, sobbing uncontrollably.

A year later in court, he was sentenced to a three-year youth term. He had pleaded guilty to manslaughter, three counts of arson with disregard to human life, along with single counts of arson causing bodily harm and breaching two youth court orders.

At the time, Judge Colin Flynn called it a harrowing case, “a tragic set of social circumstances, in light of this (teenager), has led to a second set of tragic circumstances, the death of a 54-year-old man.”

The case prompted an investigation by the province’s Advocate for Children and Youth, Carol Chafe.

Tuesday, in St. John’s, Chafe said the investigation identified deficiencies in services being provided to the youth by various government departments and agencies. This included a lack of collaboration and sharing of information, and a lack of documentation and assessments.

The scathing report, entitled “Sixteen,” contains 30 recommendations to improve the system and reduce the risk of another child going through a similar experience.

Forty interviews were conducted, including with the youth, his family members and the professionals involved in his life. Two out-of-province psychiatrists were contracted to provide their expert opinion. An intensive review of policies, procedures and legislation was also carried out.

“This investigation reveals the story of a child who was crying out for help,” Chafe says in the forward to the report.

“Due to deficiencies in the system, there were times when his voice was not heard, his rights were not respected and his right to services was not upheld.”

The youth was born in 1995 and lived with his mother until he was 15, when he was removed from her care by the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services and placed in an alternate living arrangement (ALA). Several weeks later, on his 16th birthday, he signed a youth services agreement (YSA) and moved into a shelter. Following stays at two different shelters, he moved into the bedsitting room on Springdale Street.

Child, Youth and Family Services Minister Paul Davis acknowledged there was a major failure back in 2011.

“They’re a very difficult set of circumstances and a very tragic set of circumstances,” he said.

“There were failures in relation to that young person, and there were gaps. I can tell you, as a department, we have taken many many steps since then to work to close these gaps to provide the best service that we can for children and youth.”

Davis said the department was in transition back in 2011, as a result of services being spun off from the Department of Health and other parts of government into the stand-alone Child, Youth and Family Services Department.

“We are committed to working with the advocate,” Davis said.

“I think it would be pretty difficult to put a time frame on (implementing her recommendations) at this point in time. I think the next big, important step for us is to, once we’ve had a good comprehensive look at the recommendations, is to meet with the advocate and have a good discussion with her.”

Liberal House Leader Andrew Parsons said that isn’t good enough.

He called it a “scathing report, and necessarily so.”

Parsons said action needs to be taken right away.

“It’s really troubling, and I think government needs to answer to this,” he said. “They can’t do this fast enough. There shouldn’t be a delay.

The report’s conclusion states that despite the involvement of professionals from the departments of Child, Youth and Family Services (CYFS),  Justice, Health and Community Services, the RNC and Eastern Health, the youth’s best interests were not put first.

“While (the youth was) an active client of the (CYFS) on paper, he was not of primary concern throughout the program areas he encountered,” the conclusion states. “There was significant evidence of non-adherence to policies and/or best practices by social workers involved.

“Additionally, there was evidence of misinterpretation of (CYFS) policies at the management level. Failure to complete comprehensive assessments, delays in the input of file documentation and delays in file transfer further impeded the continuity of service provision …”

The report noted, “a lack of appropriate housing for youth was evidenced by (his) living conditions after his 16th birthday, which identified a major gap in services for youth in this province who are part of the Youth Services Program.”

The report stated there seemed to be a lack of co-ordinated effort between the multiple agencies dealing with the youth, in part due to poor communications.

“(The youth) was not mature enough, emotionally, nor did he have the coping skills to be placed in what was, for the most part, an unsupervised placement,” the report said.

“Impulsive, intermittently expressing both suicidal and homicidal ideation, increasingly helpless and hopeless, and with a serious substance abuse problem in many respects, (the youth) was set up for failure.”