Friday, September 22, 2006

A better way for klds in care

VICTORIA - Life is tough for children in the care of the government.
That’s not a slag on them, foster parents, social workers or the Liberals or New Democrats. It’s reality. Children in care have a tough time. Their lives - in care and after - are typically a struggle.
A new report from provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall and child youth officer Jane Morley confirms the problems and suggests useful areas for more research.
Most importantly, it suggests things that we can do now to start fixing the problems.
The report is groundbreaking, which should give you satisfaction that it was done and frustration that it’s taken so long. The study looked at the lives of more than 12,000 children in care between 1997 and 2005 and tracked their health-care records.
It was grim. Children in continuing care were five times as likely to commit suicide. They were 10 times as likely to end up in hospital as an assault victim. They were four times as likely to die.
Girls were four times as likely to become pregnant. Ten-year-old boys were 10 times as likely to be on Ritalin or other behaviour modification drugs.
Stop and reread those last two paragraphs and consider the odds for a little five-year-old boy starting his school years in the government’s care, toting his possessions in a cardboard bos as he starts his life with strangers.
This all shouldn’t be surprising. Children don’t just suddenly end up in the government’s care. They tend to come from troubled backgrounds. They suffer from malnutrition, fetal alcohol issues, neglect and all the illnesses and disadvantages that poverty brings. Messed-up parents have messed-up kids.
But so what?
If our own kids have problems, we don’t write them off. We work harder to do whatever it takes to give them the best chance.
These children and youths, whether we like it or not, are our responsibility too. They don’t have anyone else; that’s why they are in care. We, as a society, said we’d look after them.
And we do a bad job. We’re cheap, inattentive and callous. The Children’s Commission final annual report, in 2002, found that half the 9,700 children in the government’s care didn’t have the required care plans to provide direction and stability to their lives. At the same time, we watched as the government cut the ministry budget to save money. A tax increase worth 50 cents a week per British Columbian would change everything for these children, but the goverment has calculated that we don't think it's worth spending the money.
So what do we do? For starters, press the government to accept all 13 recommendations from the report. Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen seemed supportive, but ministers almost always do. Action does not necessarily follow.
For a specific test, watch to see what Christensen does about the report’s recommendation that the government come up with new funding for a cross-ministry plan for “post-majority supports for youth leaving care.”
Right now, children who have spent their lives in foster care and considered fully capable adults as soon as they turn 19. They get $700 and are sent out into the world to find a job and an apartment and make a life. "There's really no post-majority programs in place with the ministry of children and families," Morley said as she and KEndall released the report. Basic support, like counselling and help with budgeting or looking for work or considering school options doesn’t exist.
That’s cruel and stupid. The study followed who had been in care until they were 25. Unsurprisingly their problems continued and their risks of suicide, injury and mental health issues remained high. So did their pregancy rate. Young women barely able to care for themselves were much more likely to end up trying to care for bay.
Shamefully, the government is now appealing a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that it couldn’t arbitrarily cut needed support the day someone turns 19.
Christensen is new in the job. If, in the next 60 days, he can announce new funding to provide the needed support for children in care - as the report recommends - you can be optimistic that perhaps things will begin to get better for these children.
The first steps forward have been set out. Now we’ll see if the government is interested in improving the lives of these children and youth.
Footnote: There was good news in the report. While things may be bleak, in a number of areas - including mortality rates - there has been a steady improvement over the last two decades and a narrowing gap between the prospects for children in care and their peers in the rest of the population. It's important to celebrate successes.


Anonymous said...

"...We, as a society, said we’d look after them. And we do a bad job. We’re cheap, inattentive and callous..."

That's it right there, Paul. If we as individual taxpayers had to look those kids in the eye every time we tacitly approved a budget cut or ignored a plea for help, we would not be so "cheap, inattentive and callous".

Anonymous said...

Somehow we consider these kids as somehow different that us. But that's the dumb route to follow. A society that doesn't consider the care of the weakest of itself is not a good society. But if it's money for Olympics or golf courses well heck that a different story. Oops we counted a bit wrong with Olypic costs, here is another 115 millions with more where that came form. Take care of the kids because they, in a few years will be running the place. Treat them poorly and they might end up treating us poorly as we age.

Lisa said...

I am a former foster child and current child advocate.

Thank you, Paul, for your awareness of these issues and for sharing them with others.


Lisa said...

According to An April 6, 2005 study, former foster children in Washington and Oregon suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate of U.S. War veterans.

The definition of PSD is "a condition in which victims of overwhelming and uncontrollable experiences are subsequently psychologically affected by feelings of intense fear, loss of safety, loss of control, helplessness and extreme vulnerability. In children, the disorder involves disorganized and agitated behavior."

After having suffered a traumatic event, children believe that if they are vigilent enough, they will recognize the warning signs and avoid future traumas.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School, the University of Michigan and Casey Family Programs reviewed case files of 659 adults, ages 20 to 33, who had lived in foster care between 1988 and 1998. They interviewed 479 of them. It is the first significant study of how former foster children fare over a long period of time.

Most of those studied entered foster care because they had been abused or neglected. More than half reported clinical levels of mental illness, compared with less than a quarter of the general population.

Foster children, the study said, are especially vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Peter Pecora, director of research for Casey Family Programs, said a fourth of those studied reported symptoms of the disorder -- twice the rate of U.S. war veterans.

"It is a dramatic finding," he said, adding that national studies show that 12 percent to 13 percent of Iraq war veterans and 15 percent of Vietnam war veterans suffer from the disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs in some people who experience or witness life-threatening events, such as violent personal assaults, military combat or serious accidents. They often relive the trauma through nightmares and flashbacks, and feel detached or estranged.