Sunday, July 13, 2008

For kids in care, a court date is more likely than a grad dance

Bob Ritchie is one of the interesting people I only know because I write a column. We've never met, but he's a prolific writer of letters to the editor and e-mails to politicians and journalists.
Ritchie lives in Qualicum; he's 78 and worked for B.C. Hydro, in an office job.
And he cares passionately about a lot of issues, from the need for a tougher stance on crime to what he sees as a crisis in the state of children and families in B.C. He looks at life in the province, and the future, and doesn't like what he sees.
I don't always agree with Ritchie, but I admire his commitment and bold approach to solving problems, and always read his e-mails with interest.
So do a lot of other people. A quick bit of research found he had raised issues publicly some 60 times in the last 12 months, with letters to the editor in papers around the province or mentions in columns or news stories. (And that is in what has been a very tough year for him personally.)
And I respect him. He gave me a shot this week, an e-mail with this subject line: "Paul please show me that you really care. I would sure like to get more out of reading your articles. You have seemed to have lost interest. Bob."
I haven't lost interest. It does get exhausting being fierce all the time, as Ritchie expects. It takes a lot of research to build an airtight argument. And I don't want to seem like a crabby nag.
But Ritchie is right. It is important to keep raising the issues that really matter.
Which leads, in a roundabout way, to a speech by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond last month.
The province's Representative for Children and Youth offered a preview of a massive research project that tracked the lives of 50,000 children born in B.C. since 1986.
The first results confirmed Ritchie's point that we need to do so much better. The data showed, Turpel-Lafond said, that children taken into the government's care were more likely to end up charged with a crime than to graduate from high school.
Think about the teens you know. How many end up facing in trouble with the law?
For adolescents receiving services from the Ministry of Children and Families, 44 per cent end up facing criminal charges.
More than one-third of children in care tracked by the study ended up serving time in jail. That shows major problems, given how hard the courts work to keep young people out of prison.
Of course, children in care very often start off with some big handicaps. Fetal alcohol effect (a big concern of Ritchie's), learning disabilities, emotional problems from neglect or abuse, or health problems from a rough infancy - these are going to take their toll.
Still, are their years in care improving their chances of success - of graduating from high school, instead of into the criminal justice system, for example?
For some youths, certainly. But the statistics suggest not for most of the children in care.
There are lots of areas for improvement. But there's a basic principle behind the failures.
Lots of kids only graduate from high school because their parents encourage, push and grind them. If they skip school or bring home a dismal report card, their parents lean on them any way they can. And the kids make it.
And lots of teens get in the same kind of scrapes with the law that kids in care do. But their parents sweep in and pull them back from the brink. They provide the support the courts are looking for when deciding whether to divert the case to some resolution outside the criminal justice system.
Not kids in the government's care. We've decided not to care enough about them.
OK, Bob?
Footonote: Practically, children in care as young as 13 end up with little support if things go sideways.
Foster parents can't track them and the ministry doesn't know what's going in their lives.
Turpel-Lafond notes almost 600 teens in care, as young as 16, are on "independent living" agreements, living in rooms or cheap apartments on their own. It is a formula for bad choices and worse outcomes.
The full report is to be released this fall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While I generally agree that the state does a piss poor job of child welfare in the province, it is important to note that foster parents and social workers, the legal guardians of children in care, do the best job they possibly can to care for and offer caring and nurturing relationships with children & youth in the system. It fuels the fires of marginalization and stigmatization against children & youth in care to make assumptions that "foster parents can't track them and the ministry doesn't know what's going in their lives." There are many, many success stories of children & youth in care, young people who go to school like every other kid, work jobs, graduate, go to post-secondary school, move forward in their lives, have families etc.

Turpel-Lafond's reports are crucial and important and the bad stuff should not be glossed over, or ignored, but it's also time for some more positive stories too.
Part of the reason for the poor outcomes for kids in care is the fact that they are stigmatized from the time their family becomes involved in the system and they experience stigma everywhere they turn.

Independent living agreements can be the difference between kids being forced to stay in homes where they aren't safe, or being out on their own being vulnerable to pimps, crime and other unsavoury things. Youth on agreements have their living expenses paid while they go to school, work, are in counselling or other types of programs. They also often have independent living skills workers to assist in their transition to adulthood. It would be great if every youth had adults that they could depend on, not the state, but maybe it's time for the media to offer youth in and from care an opportunity to talk about their own lives. Maybe a commitment to balance out the bad with the good will help change the perception everyone has whether it is about kids in care, the work of foster parents, social workers and the "system."