The B.C. legislature is back in session, and the state of our province’s child-welfare system has rocketed up the agenda after the latest in a long line of reports from B.C.’s office of the representative for children and youth.
That report, Broken Promises: Alex’s Story, was a heartbreaking look into the life and death of a young man who experienced the worst parts of a broken social-care system.
Understandably, the government is on the defensive. The NDP opposition is, also understandably, asking hard questions about children in government care.
As was pointed out by the new representative for children and youth, and many media outlets, there is a framework ready to go that can help improve services for young people in care. It’s called the Residential Review Report and it’s not only available to the government, but was co-authored by the Ministry of Children and Family Development in 2012.
My organization, the Federation of Community Social Services of B.C., was the other co-author, and the report contained 32 recommendations for substantially improving B.C.’s child-welfare system. Those recommendations came, in part, from people who work directly with children and youth in care and many of those young people themselves.
In question period, Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux recently said: “As of today, 22 of 30 recommendations have been implemented, and we’re continuing work on the rest.”
I know those recommendations very well, and 22 sounds awfully high. But this work isn’t about numbers, it’s about children and youth doing better than they were last year or five years ago.
They aren’t. And the few recommendations that have been addressed aren’t the ones that could have made the greatest impact on the lives of children such as Alex or Nick or Paige.
From our perspective, the Residential Review Report isn’t a checklist. It’s a framework for change. The number of boxes ticked doesn’t really matter if kids in care are still killing themselves, still aging out of care, still losing touch with their heritage and still falling through the cracks.
The goal isn’t: “We’ve done all the things on the list.” The goal is a system of care that doesn’t drive kids to kill themselves.
One of the key areas the report urged the government to address was permanency: safe, stable, and enduring relationships for children and youth in care.
“That report suggested that we needed to address permanency,” admitted Cadieux. “We’ve done that by focusing on adoptions and permanency.” Apparently, that box has been checked off.
Except that’s not how it works. Permanency is not moving a child to a new group home every year. Alex Gervais had 17 different placements over 11 years. Similar experiences are far too common for kids in care.
From our perspective, a real focus on permanency means having enough family supports so parents and relatives don’t have to give their kids up; it means an honest, culturally appropriate care plan for each and every child; it means enough foster homes for all the children in care.
No matter how many boxes might or might not have been ticked, our current child-welfare system is not able to do that.
When the report was written in 2012, both parties understood that in order to create the substantial change that was required, more funds would be needed. Those funds never came.
In the early 2000s, the B.C. government yanked hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the ministry and closed dozens of group homes. That devastated our province’s capacity to take care of kids. Sure, small increases from time to time and one-off funding for projects have sounded good in press releases, but they could not even start to bring about the systemic change that is needed.
My organization spent three years working on the report, researching it, talking to children and families and social workers across the province. We know very well what it says, and how many children’s lives are at stake.
Cadieux is correct: the Residential Review Report has not been ignored. But that does not mean we are at all happy with the minimal progress that has been made since 2012.
Recent comments made by our government in the legislature make it sound as if this is the best there is, that this is as much as could be done, and that no other government could do better. I hope that’s not the case.
The government, for better or worse, is a parent to these kids — a parent who seems to be throwing up their hands and conceding defeat. No other parent would do that when the lives of their children are at stake.
Rick FitzZaland is executive director of the Federation of Community Social Services of B.C.