Jody Coyen isn't surprised that half of the women Robert Pickton is guilty of killing are alumnae of the provincial foster-care system. At 34, she's already a veteran of the Downtown Eastside's street life and was friends with many of the missing women. In an interview at the Ovaltine Cafe on December 11, Coyen told the Georgia Straight that "most people down here have the same story. They were abused as children, come from alcoholic homes, stayed in foster care."
In fact, 65 percent of people who live on the street are former kids in care, according to a study commissioned by the B.C. Federation of Foster Parent Associations. The statistic chills the federation's president, Melanie Filiatrault. Having fostered 42 children, she knows some of them are not making good choices and are vulnerable, just like Pickton's victims.
"It just makes my heart ache," she told the Straight in a phone interview. "It's almost criminal."
Filiatrault is travelling around B.C., asking foster families what supports they need to help kids in care make better choices. It's an ongoing project, she said, as foster parents know "the names, addresses, and phone numbers of tomorrow's homeless".
About 9,000 children and youths are in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development, according to its Web site. At the University of Victoria, the Promoting Positive Outcomes for Youth From Care project studies what happens to youths after they graduate from the system at 19. It found that within 2.5 years after leaving: 85 percent had been charged with a crime; 38 percent had been diagnosed with depression; and 41 percent reported using marijuana at least a few times per week. Just 21 percent of youths in care graduate from high school, compared to 78 percent across the province.
On November 26, the provincial child and youth officer, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, released a report that found that only 18 of retired judge Ted Hughes's 62 child-protection recommendations had been implemented since they were accepted by the government in April 2006. The recommendations grew out of a review of the entire child-welfare system, precipitated by the 2002 Port Alberni beating death of foster child Sherry Charlie. Earlier this month, the B.C. Liberals refused to increase Turpel-Lafond's budget. She had asked for $6.558 million for 2008-09 but received one-third less.
In light of Turpel-Lafond's report and the Pickton case, the province should play a much bigger role in keeping its children in care from becoming victims, Adrianne Montani told the Straight in a phone interview. Montani is the provincial coordinator for First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition. The bigger role will require lighter case loads for social workers, better welfare rates, better budgets for children's services, and a commitment to fund the Ministry of Children and Family Development on the basis of need rather than arbitrarily, as happens now, she said.
"The research tells us that being in foster care is a prognosis for a big vulnerability to an unproductive life," Montani said. "People end up very, very fragile and vulnerable, so they self-medicate as there's so much pain when you're taken away from your family."
She noted that there are plenty of excellent foster parents and some not-so-great ones. But the real problem with the system is that kids are taken away from their parents in the first place, and that creates a base of instability that is difficult to repair.
Realistically, Montani said, some children will always need to be apprehended, as their families cannot care for them safely. However, she said, the number of apprehensions could be cut dramatically if B.C. families were supported properly. Income assistance does not provide enough money to feed kids a proper diet, she said, which makes those families vulnerable to apprehension. The minimum wage is so low, families can barely afford proper clothing and furniture–again, making them vulnerable to apprehension. An accessible child-care system would help families dramatically, she said.
Indeed, the executive director of the B.C. Association of Social Workers, Linda Korvin, said there has always been a lack of political will to care for children and youths properly.
"The system has been underfunded since long before my time," she told the Straight in a phone interview. "It's because they're people without a voice.”¦I think the public cares when there's a tragedy [such as the homicide of Savannah Hall], but when it's not in the news, people go on to other things. There's not enough consistent public pressure."
Coyen said she wishes the government had intervened when she was a child. Physical abuse, sexual abuse of both her and her brother, and an alcoholic mother pushed her into addiction by the time she was a young teen, she said. Had her mom received some parenting support, she said, her life might have turned out differently.