'In jail': Teenagers spent 10 days in windowless rooms in Quebec group homes over COVID-19 exposure

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Teenagers living in group homes in Laval were confined to windowless rooms for 10 straight days this month, in the name of COVID-19 control – though they didn’t have COVID-19. 

The rule, in place for two weeks, was written specifically for youth group homes and was also applied to much younger children, social workers said.

“It's like if she’s been in jail,” said one mother about her 15-year-old daughter, who lives in a group home because she was self-mutilating and running away.

At her daughter's facility, the girls are exceptionally vulnerable and many have serious mental health problems. They only had a potential exposure to the virus, but nevertheless were kept in confinement around the clock, similar to boys in another windowless unit and another home for kids as young as six.

The idea that this kind of measure was used in Quebec youth group homes in the name of children’s health makes her furious, said the mother, Nathalie.

“I'm going to lock you in a room with no window for 10 days. Tell me how you feel,” she said.

In the beginning, “I put her there to protect her,” she said of her daughter's facility.

CTV has chosen not to publish Nathalie’s last name in order to protect the privacy of her daughter, Sabrina.

Laval public health said in a statement that staff at Sabrina's facility, Notre-Dame-de-Laval, and others were following Quebec health ministry rules when they put youth into isolation, and the ministry confirmed this.

After only two weeks, the ministry backtracked on the rule, making sure the province’s youth homes all got a call to tell them verbally to ease up even before authorities had time to rewrite the formal directive.

But a lot of damage was done, said Nathalie.

In fact, Sabrina spent a total of 18 days since Christmastime in her tiny room at Notre-Dame-de-Laval, said Nathalie.

The teenager lives at her unit in the home with about a dozen other girls, the youngest of whom is about 14, though the home can be open to girls as young as 13.

During their repeated lockdowns over the holidays, the girls’ bedroom doors weren’t actually locked—unless they tried to leave them, in which case they could be locked in, Nathalie said.

Staff brought them plates of food to their rooms and escorted them on bathroom breaks. The girls had no phones or laptops, but the staff gave them portable DVD players to pass the time on their beds.

Sabrina was given 10 minutes a day to call her mother, keeping her up to date on the tests she had taken (four in total over the 10 days, all negative) and the rules of the lockdown.

Nathalie said she was perhaps most disturbed by the window issue—she has seen the inside of the unit and knows that the bedrooms get no natural light.

“There's no f**** window in the room,” she said. “My daughter was like, ‘Maman, during the day, I'm always tired, and at four in the morning I'm doing gymnastics in my bed,’” she recalled.

She also knows that sometimes, “there's girls who are there because they attempt suicide,” she said.

PHYSICAL OUTBURSTS, SPITTING

Two social workers who work in Laval said that Notre-Dame-de-Laval wasn't the only home that had to put kids in their rooms during that period -- nor is it the only one without windows.

A unit for boys at the Centre Cartier facility had a similar experience, with the boys put in windowless rooms, and there's also a separate home for children aged six to 12 that was expected to abide by a similar regime.

There weren't many cases of the virus at the group homes, but there were many cases of isolation, the two workers said.

They described dramatic effects on the kids, with some going into physical frenzies that required security staff to hold them down.

Some of the confined youth would "yell, throw punches, try to hurt other people," said social worker Natacha Pelchat, who visits some of the group homes.

A particular concern was a home for children aged six to 12, said her coworker, Pierre-Luc Carrier.

"We have problems with this unit because [the children] need to wear the mask if they want to go out of their rooms," he said. But often the young children refuse. 

"Those who don't want to wear the mask, they're in their room, they're spitting at the staff," he said.

"The older ones, they understand more, but the kids six to 12, that's what the staff are telling us -- they don't understand why."

It's unclear if there was a similar spate of lockdowns in group homes in other parts of the province, outside of Laval.

Pelchat and Carrier only work in Laval so they couldn't say. A union that represents this kind of youth social worker, the APTSQ, told CTV News that it hasn’t yet been able to confirm whether other regions had as many lockdowns.

Quebec's commission meant to protect human rights and youth rights told CTV News this week it hasn't yet looked into the situation. A spokesperson said that after checking with staff, "it appears that the Commission has not analyzed or taken a position on this particular issue."

A spokesperson for Batshaw, the youth protection agency run out of the Centre-West health authority in Montreal, referred questions to the ministry of health, which was responsible for the directive.

The 10-day isolation rule arrived from the ministry on Dec. 30, at the height of Quebec’s Omicron wave.

It said that youth living in group homes who should be considered in a “warm zone” must be separated from the group for 10 days. That “warm zone” includes young people with a possible exposure, but no symptoms.

It was ultimately the social workers, disturbed by what they were seeing, who convinced the ministry to do an about-face on Jan. 13. That day, the Laval social workers held a meeting with the local health authority to draw their attention to the urgency of the situation.

The health ministry responded, sparking a flurry of calls to group homes across the province telling them to call off the 10-day rule. 

‘WE JUST LOST ALL THIS NOW’

Nathalie was frantically trying to get answers, becoming increasingly worried during Sabrina’s daily phone calls.

“After seven days, I was like, starting to scream… I was getting really mad,” Nathalie said.

She repeatedly called the home’s staff. In the last three days of the isolation, they told her they’d changed the rules: girls would now only spend 23 hours in their rooms per day, and each could spend an hour sitting alone on a balcony, or in the group kitchen, one by one at allotted times.

Indoors, Sabrina grew sick of movies. Sitting on the balcony, she did “nothing,” said her mother. “She looked at squirrels.”

She has sometimes tried to feed the squirrels—she loves animals—but “gets in trouble” for that, said Nathalie.

“I don’t understand,” said her mother.

In a statement, the Laval health district said that while it was following provincial orders, its staff made efforts to ease the “impact… on [the girls’] psychological health.”

Aside from the DVD players, staff members offered to go into the rooms in full protective gear to play a game, such as a board game. They “cooked brunch meals, or home-cooked meals just for them,” including extra treats, said a spokesperson.

The girls got extra time to call home and were offered unlimited time outdoors, in the yard, as long as staff was available, the spokesperson said.

Nathalie said that her daughter played a game of bingo once—with all the girls wearing masks in their rooms and yelling back and forth through the hallway.

She didn’t get any extra phone time and wasn’t offered time in the courtyard, Nathalie said.

Even more worryingly, by the time she was offered the chance to leave her room for an hour a day, she’d lost a lot of interest in doing so, said Nathalie.

“We just lost a lot of progress,” she said.

Sabrina has been living at the home for two years, after coming from another group home.

While her family placed her in the first home voluntarily, the department of youth protection eventually became involved in her file, Nathalie said. All parties agreed to move her to the Laval home—the only one where staff can lock the doors, for the security of girls like her, since she was running away.

Now that Youth Protection is involved, there must be a longer process to decide if she can return home permanently—she can’t just leave, except for overnight visits, which normally happen every weekend and on holidays.

She was doing well, said Nathalie. But after the last month, it seems her development has gone backwards.

When she first arrived at the home she refused to talk to the other girls, or sometimes to leave her room at all.

“After a while she was going out, she was eating with the group, she was doing activities. She was doing everything,” Nathalie said.

She stopped trying to run away and her family has been trying hard to keep her in school.

“And now she's been locked so many times in the room then we just lost all this now,” Nathalie said.

After the lockdown ended last week, it was like her daughter didn’t rejoin the home.

“She doesn't want to go out, like for activities, or sometimes even doesn't want to go out to eat, so she’s just eating by herself in the room,” Nathalie said.

What also infuriated her mother is that while the home was following bureaucratic orders, those orders made no sense given the home’s setup, Nathalie said. Each bedroom does have windows in the door, but these windows have no glass in them—air can pass freely in and out.

During the 10-day lockdown, the girls had to keep curtains over these glassless windows, their only exterior view, “to keep out the COVID,” Nathalie said. If they didn’t keep the curtains closed, they would face “consequences,” mainly wearing masks inside their rooms.

No health authority provided an answer on the logic around this.

A POLICY ABOUT-FACE

When asked about the windowless rooms, the CISSS Laval said it’s trying to get better conditions at the group homes and has a project in the works to modernize that particular centre.

The CISSS “is aware that the units at the [centre] are dilapidated,” the spokesperson wrote.

Two years ago, it wrote a brief to the Special Commission on Children's Rights and Youth Protection, known as the "Laurent Commission," to “advocate for environments that are inviting and have the feeling of security offered by a home conducive to the development of children."

When the Ministry of Health was asked if it had considered the different infrastructure of Quebec’s group homes when it wrote its original directive—for example, whether some children would be kept in windowless rooms—it didn’t respond to that question.

A week after its new verbal directions, the ministry released a written update this Friday, formalizing the new rules.

It has changed the rules to consider youth group homes to be primarily living environments rather than care environments more akin to hospitals, explained spokesperson Robert Maranda.

“At the time of the events, the Youth Centres were subject to the instructions relating to care settings and the related isolation instructions,” wrote Maranda.

Now, however, they’re seen as living environments where the inhabitants can all be considered one “bubble,” he wrote.

The CISSS Laval also wrote that “with the return to school, young people living in the same living unit will now be considered as a residential bubble in which the health measures in force in society will be applied.”

Maranda said the new directive tries to weigh the health drawbacks of extended isolation versus the health benefits of possibly preventing COVID-19. 

It “takes into consideration the benefits of preventing the psychosocial deconditioning of young people compared to the possible consequences of being infected with COVID-19,” he wrote.

For Nathalie, however, the health tradeoffs were already clear, and the effect on the girls who already lived through the experience can’t necessarily be so easily fixed -- and those who care for them should have known that, she said.

“I don’t know [all] the girls, I don’t know their problems," she said, "but they’re all there for a reason."

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