The president of Nova Scotia’s largest union is calling on the government to address what she says is a crisis at a youth centre in Sydney.
Joan Jessome says drugs, sex and violence are rampant among residents at the Comhla Cruinn Youth Centre and that both staff and residents are at risk.
“Drugs are rampant. They come back sometimes enraged on drugs,” said Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, on Wednesday.
“They become very violent. They can destroy the place. They have terrorized the staff. There’s been times when the staff have had to lock themselves in a room for safety because there’s no lockdown unit in this facility. They use drugs in the facility. They engage in sexual activity in the facility.”
The co-ed centre opened in 2005. It houses roughly eight youth between the ages of 12 and 18 and is under the Department of Community Services.
Geoff MacLellan is currently the acting Minister of Community Services.
“When you see these accusations and concerns being raised, that’s certainly a major concern for us and we’re going to look into it,” MacLellan said. “In fact, (department) staff is on the ground already.”
According to a news release from the NSGEU, about half the residents are housed on a temporary basis, while the remaining half are considered permanent with no home to return to.
The NSGEU says the facility was initially intended to house residents who are evaluated as low-level risks and in need of residential support or outreach programs. However, the union alleges that, due to budget cuts, the facility is receiving higher-risk residents who would normally end up at a more secure youth centre.
“Staff are reporting horrific working and living conditions at this facility,” said Jessome. “They regularly report being threatened, abused and assaulted by clients.”
Jessome says the NSGEU has learned that residents aren’t searched with they return to the centre and that some come back under the influence of drugs.
She alleges that residents are free to come and go as they please and are often out all hours of the night, including those who are under court-imposed curfews.
Cape Breton Regional Police are called to the facility more than 500 times a year, according to Jessome. Police insist the problems are not as serious as the union alleges.
“As far as any of the allegations that are there – if, say, sex was running rampant, if that’s the case, I’m sure staff at the facility would have called,” said Cape Breton Regional Police Inspector Ron Donovan.
Jessome says workers are directed not to call police too often.
In addition, she says there are no consequences for negative behaviour and that staff have not received adequate training.
Jessome is calling on the provincial government to bring in security to ensure the safety of workers and residents and to undertake a full, comprehensive review of the facility.
“We want our managers and staff to have an open conversation about these things and that any issues, any safety concern is being addressed,” MacLellan said.
Jessome says the NSGEU will go through the proper Occupational Health and Safety channels to file formal complaints.
“We have an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of both our own members and these youth,” she said. “It’s only a matter of time before we have a tragedy on our hands at Comhla Cruinn.”
With files from CTV Atlantic's Ryan MacDonald