Changes could help fix B.C.'s foster care system
On a porch a few blocks from Playland, a tidy shelf holds dozens of pairs of kids’ shoes. There are Crocs and sandals and sneakers. All of them belong to Cory Robinson’s gaggle of kids, two biological and three foster, whom he parents with his long-time girlfriend. Twice a week there are more shoes, when another three former foster kids come for dinner. His goal is to make sure all eight of them—plus the teens he mentors through his outreach job at the Eastside Aboriginal Space for Youth—know who they are, like who they are, and turn 19 ready for financial and emotional independence.
In his late 20s, Robinson is shouldering a load of fatherhood most men never take on. For him—having lived in 24 foster and group homes since babyhood—this is his chance to give a new generation what he missed out on: stability and support.
“It’s weird that they look up to me,” he flatly told the Georgia Straight in an interview in his living room. “Obviously, they [the Ministry of Children and Family Development] didn’t do a very good job when it came to me. That’s what you get when you show someone you don’t care about them. I’m 27, and I’m still trying to find my voice. So we end up learning together on that one.”
Robinson is on the frontlines trying to fix a system that his experience tells him is broken. He’s not the only one trying to overhaul child protection—the arm of the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development responsible for investigating child abuse and safety concerns, and sometimes moving children to foster care or other care arrangements. Since 2007, between 8,300 and 9,300 children and youths have been in the care of the government at any given time—about one percent of the total underage population (and about six percent of aboriginal kids and teens). Some are permanent wards of the province; others stay in care for under a week.
After 11 years in office and with less than a year to go before the next election, the Liberal government is hammering through two major changes that may address some of the most serious criticisms of the system.
First, it’s widely acknowledged that when youths turn 19 and “age out” of the system, many crumble under the weight of immediate, adult responsibilities. For example, about half of teens who leave the system apply for social assistance within six months of turning 19.
Soon, the B.C. Representative for Children and Youth, feisty former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, will likely take on a new role. If the legislature passes some proposed amendments to the Representative for Children and Youth Act, she’ll also advocate for young adults aged 19 to 24 who are transitioning out of care—potentially strengthening one of the weakest parts of the system. In addition, deputy MCFD minister Stephen Brown spent part of the winter speaking with young adults formerly in care, gathering information to improve the effectiveness of services for teens who age out of the system.
Second, the 2012–15 MCFD strategic plan, which was presented on February 21 as part of the budget, includes giving struggling families more resources to help them keep their kids rather than apprehending them, and keeping more apprehended kids with their extended families and in their communities. Turpel-Lafond has praised the direction the ministry is taking. (Neither a ministry spokesperson nor Turpel-Lafond agreed to the Straight’s request for an interview.)
These aren’t the first high-level changes the Liberals have made since taking office. A shortlist includes appointing six different ministers; addressing the 62 recommendations in the 2006 B.C. Children and Youth Review (the “Hughes review”); opening the independent office of the Representative for Children and Youth; changing postmajority (age 19-plus) services; changing the process for allocating and increasing the amount of funding for postsecondary education; and now the massive Residential Review Project (Phase 1 yielded a 153-page report), which aims to “improve the experience and outcomes” for young people placed in foster care.
Yet outcomes for kids in care are generally still awful. In 2010-11, just 40 percent of teens who were wards of the province graduated from high school within six years of starting Grade 8, according to the MCFD’s 2012 performance-measures report (compared with about 80 percent of the general population). The last time a ward of B.C. wrote his or her Grade 12 math provincial exam was 2007.
In addition, between June 1, 2007, and January 31, 2012, 423 infants, children, and teens died while receiving care from the MCFD, and 893 more were critically injured, according to reports by Turpel-Lafond.
Plus, with horror stories arising frequently in the media—from the infamous Sherry Charlie debacle to the mistaken apprehension of four children from their family home and the parents’ four-year legal fight to get them back—the optics are terrible.
With a provincial election looming, foster care’s outcomes are the answer to the question, how well does B.C. care for its most vulnerable residents? The question is even more compelling as Premier Christy Clark is a parent herself and a former minister with the MCFD.
Even with the MCFD’s new collaborative relationship with Turpel-Lafond and her blessing of the new directions the ministry is going in, there’s likely not enough time between now and the next election (May 14, 2013, at the latest) to tell whether they’re working.
So while we’re waiting for the more detailed ministry plan to be released later this year, the Straight asked several frontline workers this question: what is one change the MCFD could make that would be guaranteed to improve outcomes before the next election?