OPSEU/SEFPO President JP Hornick is urging the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (MCCSS) to address the staffing crisis at the St. Lawrence Youth Association (SLYA) in Kingston, Ontario with increased base funding, to ensure that female youth in custody have the services and programs they are entitled to by law.
Hornick outlined in detail the crisis situation at SLYA in a letter to the East Director of MCCSS:
August 9, 2023
Jeff Gill, Director – East Region
Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services
Request for meeting to address urgent staffing crisis at St. Lawrence Youth Association
Dear Mr. Gill,
I am writing about an urgent and very troubling situation at the St. Lawrence Youth Association (SLYA), Sundance Program, a 10-bed secure detention/custody facility, one of three remaining in the province.
OPSEU/SEFPO represents approximately 46 workers at SLYA who provide support to female youth offenders who are in custody, and workers who support high risk youth on probation in the community. As you would know, in March 2021, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services simultaneously closed youth custody and detention programs at 25 youth detention facilities, creating a lack of spaces province-wide. SLYA is one of three remaining closed custody facilities in Ontario after the 2021 agency closures. The remaining agencies have been in crisis since then, struggling to retain qualified staff and shortchanging vulnerable youth without adequate funding. This situation is unsustainable.
The ministry cannot expect to provide the level of care that is mandated without providing adequate funding after 17 years of no base budget increases. OPSEU/SEFPO recommends base funding increases to address the crisis at St Lawrence Youth Association to:
- Align wage rates with Ontario Public Service rates to retain and train qualified and committed staff
- Raise the staffing ratio and hire more staff to improve programming and safety
- Create in-house positions to provide psychological and mental health supports for youth
- Raise the allocation of funds for food and client/personal needs.
Chronically low wages and high-risk working conditions have produced a staffing crisis that has seriously impacted both workers and youth at the closed custody residence. Your ministry acknowledged the problem in the spring, providing temporary funding to hire staff from an outside agency for two months and providing short term retention bonuses. This temporary assistance will not address the staffing crisis and unsafe working conditions without permanent funding increases.
I want to share with you the angst that workers are reporting in their diligent work with traumatized youth without having adequate financial supports and resources. The youth at Sundance have complex needs and a history of extensive trauma; the majority are Black and Indigenous. Some youth seriously self-harm, others have been trafficked, and most have a history of violent crime. With fewer available beds across the province, many of these youth are far from their communities and cannot access family support. Indigenous youth are being flown far from their communities adding exorbitant transportation costs and often serve extra time due to the challenges of arranging transportation.
The ministry standard is two staff for ten beds. And yet, workers struggle to meet youth needs, complete all required duties, and provide safe programming with the current ratio. This creates an ongoing need for overtime, staff burnout and stress leading to mental health challenges. Youth were getting less time for gym and physical activities, the art program, life skills group, and outdoor time in the greenhouse, prior to bringing in temporary staff. Managers have regularly stepped in to work alongside the staff to ensure the safety and security of both youth and the staffing unit. Community staff have been called in to the facility to work in the residence, accompany youth to the hospital, transport youth within our bailiff services program and cook on weekends. This is unacceptable and not sustainable.
The budgets for client/personal needs and for food have been frozen at 2006 rates. This, too, is not sustainable nor acceptable. The client personal needs budget is intended to cover items related to programming for youth and culturally sensitive needs. The budget also helps cover the basic costs of dental care. The costs for these have all gone up and yet clients are being shortchanged.
It is appalling, given the cost of food today and the importance of a good diet as part of fostering general well-being, that the food budget has been frozen. The program has been unable to retain a full-time cook due to the low salary. The employer has resorted to hiring a youth justice worker to work part-time as a cook and part-time in the residence with the youth.
Workers are leaving and the employer is having difficulty attracting new hires. Several workers with dependents work two jobs because they cannot afford to live on the inadequate salary of their full-time job at SLYA. Another worker with more than 20 years of seniority completed a night shift and quit on the spot, citing overwork and underpay while trying to raise three children. Again, this is unacceptable and not sustainable. Workers performing the same work in the Ontario Public Service (OPS) make $13.96 more per hour.
I urge you to immediately intervene and provide permanent funding increases to ensure that youth have the services and programs they are entitled to under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. I am concerned that there could be potentially dangerous consequences for both youth and workers unless staffing is addressed immediately with increased base funding. There are no excuses for shortcuts to programming for this vulnerable population.
I would like to invite you to meet with representatives of the SYLA frontline workers from OPSEU/SEFPO Local 427 to find a solution to these urgent issues at SYLA. Please contact Cindy Filman, Community Support Specialist and OPSEU/SEFPO Local 427 President, at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an appointment to meet.
Ontario Public Service Employees Union/Syndicat des employés de la fonction publique de l’Ontario (OPSEU/SEFPO)