Mental health services for military Children: Collateral Damage

Mental health services for military Children: Collateral Damage

April 13, 2007

13 April, 2007

The province created a $2-million emergency fund for children’s mental health services and the federal government committed $100,000 to help traumatized children of Ontario-based Canadian Forces personnel serving in Afghanistan.

The province created a $2-million emergency fund for children’s mental health services and the federal government committed $100,000 to help traumatized children of Ontario-based Canadian Forces personnel serving in Afghanistan. No report was issued.
 

Ombudsman’s intervention resolves mental health services crisis for children of Ontario soldiers serving in Afghanistan (Press release - April 13, 2007)
Backgrounder: The children's mental health crisis in Petawawa (accessible PDF)
 

Case update - Annual report 2009-2010

Since the Ombudsman’s March 2007 investigation into the provision of mental health services for children of military members based at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, SORT investigators have continued to monitor the situation. In 2007, the Ombudsman found that the number of soldiers’ children in need of counselling services had grown tenfold as a result of the ongoing military mission in Afghanistan. Due to a lack of resources, these children were waiting up to six months for treatment at the local children’s mental health provider, the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families.

In response to the Ombudsman’s recommendations, the provincial government provided the Phoenix Centre with immediate funding and created a $2-million contingency fund to provide children’s mental health support to communities facing crisis or extraordinary circumstances. The Minister of National Defence also confirmed the federal government was open to further discussions with the province to ensure that the mental health needs of CFB Petawawa’s children were met. The Ombudsman did not publish a formal report because the issue was resolved. The Phoenix Centre has been able to hire more staff and meet the ongoing demand for services in subsequent years.

The Ministry continues to provide the Ombudsman with regular updates on the status of military families awaiting services from the Phoenix Centre, and SORT staff also make regular contact with the Phoenix Centre and the base.

During the past year, an average of 103 military clients have received services each month, while 23 have waited for family and child therapy and four waited for group services – however, wait times are no longer than 4-6 weeks. The Ombudsman has applauded the Ministry’s willingness to work with the federal government on this issue and will continue to monitor developments.


Case update - Annual report 2008-2009

The Ombudsman continues to monitor the implementation of his 2007 recommendations regarding the provision of mental health services for the children of soldiers based at Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Petawawa. In March of that year, a SORT investigation found the demand for psychological counselling had grown tenfold as a result of Canada’s ongoing military mission in Afghanistan. Due to a lack of resources, children of military families were waiting up to six months for treatment at the local children’s mental health provider, the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families. The investigation revealed a standoff between the federal and provincial governments, even though it was clearly a provincial responsibility to provide mental health care to the children of military members. The kids waiting for the care they so desperately needed were, in effect, collateral damage.

In response to the Ombudsman’s recommendations, the provincial government created a $2-million contingency fund to provide children’s mental health support to communities facing crisis or extraordinary circumstances and provided the Phoenix Centre with immediate funding. The Minister of National Defence also confirmed the federal government was open to further discussions with the province to ensure that the mental health needs of CFB Petawawa’s children were met. The increased funding provided by both governments allowed the Phoenix Centre to hire more staff to meet the growing demand for services.

This collaborative funding by the provincial and federal governments has continued and appears to be working well. Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services is monitoring the demand for services.

In December 2008, the Phoenix Centre reported it had experienced no reduction in need and with the death of three soldiers earlier that month, anticipated the referral rate would increase in the new year. Since then, several more soldiers from CFB Petawawa have been killed. The latest group of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan from Petawawa began returning in February 2009, with most arriving home in April. Another deployment from the base is expected later in 2009.

SORT continues to receive monthly updates from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services on the number of children on the waiting list. In February 2008, 89 military clients received services, while 13 waited for family/child treatment and one waited for group counselling. SORT investigators are in regular contact with the Phoenix Centre and military authorities and are closely monitoring developments.
 

Case update - Annual report 2007-2008

The Ombudsman’s March 2007 investigation into the provision of mental health services for the children of soldiers based at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa drew national attention to the problems faced by families of troops whose lives are at risk in the ongoing mission in Afghanistan. On March 1, 2007, the Phoenix Centre in Petawawa complained to the Ombudsman that the province was not providing adequate resources for the traumatized children of soldiers who had been killed or wounded overseas.

CFB Petawawa had sent 1,500 troops to Afghanistan in the months prior to the complaint – more than 80 had been wounded and some 14 killed in the fall of 2006 alone. The impact on the mental health of the children had been acute. Demand for psychological counselling had grown from just 2% of the Phoenix Centre’s cases to 20%, and due to a lack of money and staff, children were waiting up to six months for treatment. But the Phoenix Centre’s requests for resources were turned down by the province’s Minister of Children and Youth Services, who stated it was a federal matter because it related to a federal military mission.

The Ombudsman’s investigation, completed in 10 days, found that while national defence is a federal government responsibility, Ontario is responsible for mental health services for all children in the province, regardless of their parents’ occupation. SORT investigators interviewed more than 20 people in Petawawa and Ottawa, including widows of soldiers who had been killed in action, base personnel, Phoenix Centre staff, as well as provincial and federal officials, and staff at bases in other jurisdictions.

The investigation determined that Petawawa was in a crisis situation. The Ombudsman recommended the Ministry provide immediate funding for children’s mental health services in the area, and that it consult with the federal government on this matter in the long term. In response, Premier Dalton McGuinty confirmed the government had created a $2-million contingency fund to provide children’s mental health support to communities facing crisis or extraordinary circumstances – from which the Phoenix Centre would receive immediate funding. This new fund was part of a total $24.5-million increase for children’s mental health services. The Minister of National Defence also confirmed the federal government was open to further discussions with the province to ensure that the mental health needs of Petawawa’s children were met.

In early April 2007, the Ministry agreed on a budget increase for 2007-2008 that would allow the Phoenix Centre to hire two new therapists and two new youth workers, and the federal government provided $100,000 to the Petawawa Military Family Resource Centre to allow it to contract with the Phoenix Centre for services. With the matter thus resolved, the Ombudsman did not issue a formal report, but released the results of his investigation on April 13, 3007.

Since then, the Ministry has reported monthly to the Ombudsman on the status of military families awaiting services from the Phoenix Centre. The number of clients increased from 46 in April 2007 to 71 in December 2008. There have been 1-6 clients waiting for group counselling per month. However, while there were only four clients reported waiting for family/child treatment in April 2007, there were 28 in December 2007.

According to the Phoenix Centre, these fluctuations are again due to an increase in military activity, which in turn puts stress on the families. Waiting lists began to increase in the fall of 2007 when a number of troops were sent away for extended training. Another spike in counselling requests is expected in the summer of 2008, just before another 1,500 Petawawa-based troops are to be deployed to Afghanistan – and demand is expected to remain high through June 2009 (three months after they are due to return). The Ombudsman will continue to monitor the situation and whether the government is adequately meeting the needs of children in the Petawawa area.
 

Case update - Annual report 2006-2007

On March 1, 2007, the Ombudsman received a complaint from the Executive Director of the Phoenix Centre, the sole Children’s Mental Health Centre serving residents of Renfrew County, which includes Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. The complainant alleged that the province was failing to provide funding for adequate mental health services for military children during a time of crisis.

At that time, 14 Petawawa-based soldiers deployed in Afghanistan had been killed and another 80 seriously wounded since the summer of 2006. The impact on the mental health of soldiers’ children throughout the Petawawa community was horrific. Demand for psychological counselling for military children had grown from just 2% of the Phoenix Centre’s cases to 20% since August 2006, but due to lack of resources, these children were being forced to wait up to six months for treatment. The Phoenix Centre had requested an extra $536,250 from the provincial government to meet this increased demand, but the Ministry of Children and Youth Services repeatedly turned it down.

The Minister, Mary Anne Chambers, said publicly that because the increase in demand for service was a direct result of the federal government’s decision to send troops to Afghanistan, it was up to the federal government to deal with the consequences. The Minister confirmed to the Ombudsman that she would not commit additional funds to the Phoenix Centre because there was an overall shortage of funding for children’s mental health services across the province, and she felt the federal government should step up to help.

The SORT investigation was completed in 10 days. Investigators conducted more than 20 interviews in Petawawa and Ottawa, including with the widows of two soldiers who had been killed in action, CFB Petawawa officials and organizations that assist military families. There was indisputable evidence that the community was undergoing an extraordinary ordeal that required immediate attention. Investigators learned of increases in substance abuse and youth crime, eating disorders, self-mutilation and suicidal tendencies among the affected children. Children were not only worried that their own parents might be among the next casualties, they were also deeply affected by the losses suffered by so many of their friends. The return home of one contingent of troops in January and February had only added to the problem, as it was noted that up to 20% of soldiers may be coping with some degree of Operational Stress Injury. Indeed, the Phoenix Centre’s waiting list for family counselling had grown considerably since December 2006 and the rate of area couples seeking divorce had reportedly doubled.

In addition to interviewing provincial bureaucrats at the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, SORT investigators met at the federal level with special assistants to the Minister of National Defence and senior officials at Health Canada and Human Resources Development Canada. The purpose of these meetings was not just to gather information but also to encourage both levels of government to enter into a dialogue.

The Ombudsman determined that the provision of mental health care for the children of Canadian Forces members was solely a provincial responsibility, and that the Ministry of Children and Youth Services had failed to adequately provide those services. However, he also indicated that the federal government had a moral obligation to assist in alleviating the crisis for a number of reasons, including the potential impact on soldiers’ morale. He recommended the Ministry provide immediate funding for children’s mental health services in the area and that it ensure that these services are provided in the long term in consultation with the federal government.

Given the seriousness of the situation, the Ombudsman also met with Premier Dalton McGuinty as well as the Minister of National Defence, Gordon O’Connor, to discuss his findings and recommendations. The Premier confirmed that in response to the Ombudsman’s recommendations, the government had created a $2-million contingency fund to provide children’s mental health support to communities facing crisis or extraordinary circumstances – from which the Phoenix Centre would receive immediate funding. This new fund was part of a total $24.5-million increase for children’s mental health services, which also included a 5% increase in base funding for child and youth mental health agencies (totalling $18 million) and $4.5 million to address regional priorities. The Minister of National Defence confirmed that the federal government was open to further discussions with the province to ensure that the mental health needs of Petawawa’s children were met.

In early April 2007, Ministry of Children and Youth Services officials met with the Phoenix Centre and agreed on a budget increase for 2007-08 that would allow them to hire two new therapists and two new youth workers. Further discussions will take place later in the year. The federal government provided $100,000 to the Petawawa Military Family Resource Centre to allow it to contract with the Phoenix Centre for services. As well, the Ministry committed to reporting to the Ombudsman monthly on further progress and on the status of the children’s waiting list at the Phoenix Centre.

Due to the urgent nature of the situation and the fact that the complaint had been resolved, the Ombudsman did not publish a formal report, but released the results of his investigation publicly on April 13, 2007 in Ottawa.