HALIFAX — Government records show weapons incidents ranging from possession of pellet guns to threats with knives have been rising in Nova Scotia's youth group homes, prompting childrens' advocates to urge improved access to mental health care and increased staffing.
There were 34 incidents involving weapons in 2014, up from 25 in 2013 and 19 in 2012, according to serious occurrence reports obtained under Freedom of Information legislation.
The records also say there were 24 cases of serious injuries of children in care — with seven instances listed as being due to fights — since Jan. 1, 2012, though the province says none of the injuries led to hospitalization.
Provincial officials say the weapons and injury figures include mostly minor incidents, and one private home operator says they shouldn't be taken as a reflection on the nature of kids in care.
"There is absolutely a certain percentage of children who have experienced a level of trauma, neglect and abuse within their family that has been unbelievable. ... For them, to have a weapon is more of protection than an opportunity to harm somebody," said Ernie Hilton, director of the non-profit Homebridge group.
Hilton said youth workers are constantly training to improve their care of the children and in methods to de-escalate violence.
The 18 residential centres covered in the records care for about 150 of the province's children, from 10 years old to older teenagers.
In the reports, youth workers note that searches of rooms found weapons such as a hatchet, pellet guns, sling shots, and various knives.
For example, at Cogswell House residence in Halifax, youth workers reported that on Aug. 13 last year, "two pellet guns (hand guns) and a container with nine pellets in it," were located during a search.
And a Sept. 12, 2013 report describes how a resident and a counsellor struggled over a steel pipe the resident had brought into the Comhla Cruinn residence in Sydney, resulting in a lower back injury to the youth worker as they wrestled it away.
The Reigh Allen Centre, a shorter-term stabilization and treatment centre, also documented 12 cases of weapon possession or threats — involving knives and in one instance a machete — over an 18-month period ending Dec. 31 last year.
Janet Nearing, the director of in-care services at the Department of Community Services, says the department has measures in place that help avoid the incidents, including day-time staff ratios of three children to each youth worker, and a zero tolerance policy towards weapons.
"What we have done and will continue to do is to remove weapons that come into the facility. What's most critical is that the weapons aren't used to put anybody in danger," she said during an interview.
However, a youth care worker who cares for children said stronger efforts are needed to find mental health care for children and provide staff ratios that allow more intensive counselling.
She said some children she works with were deeply traumatized and abused in their homes and need therapy that isn't easily available.
"It's not a child protection issue, it's a mental health issue and ... there's a lack of service there," said the worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to risks to her employment.
Nearing said that most of the homes rely on the community for access to mental health and addiction services.
"There's lots of talk that we could use more of those services in our communities. ... It's an ongoing piece of work," she said.
The youth worker also said there are children in group homes who would fare better in foster care, away from the flare-ups of more troubled children.
Nearing said the department constantly assesses whether children need to remain in group care. In a follow-up email the department said there are currently 13 children in group homes who could be placed in foster homes, but none is available.
One advocate for children says the reports are reminders of the need for a stand-alone childrens' commissioner's office to examine serious occurences in greater depth.
"We are white-knuckling it right now and we really need ... somebody in a position who has the ability to speak with authority, experience and insight on these issues," said Delores Feltmate, the vice president of the Nova Scotia Child Welfare Board, in a telephone interview.
Nearing said that the ombudsman's office does visit some young people in the group homes and is available to hear complaints.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press