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?
When Kate Hodgson peers out the window of her East Hastings Street office, she often sees the legacy of failed child protection: 19-year-olds walking the streets with little support, surrounded by a predatory drug and sex industry. Many of serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims, she recalled, were former kids in care. Hodgson is executive director of the Network of Inner City Community Services Society, an umbrella organization serving the city’s most vulnerable people, many of them under 30.
“There’s no couch to go back to,” she told the Straight in an interview at her office, explaining that guaranteed funding is cut off for youth at age 19. “There’s no postcare, no life skills such as budgeting taught. We’re creating vulnerable kids, and there’s no excuse for that.”
Hodgson suggests two solutions for immediately improving the system. First, she said, restructure the Agreements With Young Adults system, which forces young people to sign a contract barring drugs, alcohol, and any school failures in order to receive education funds. Its restrictiveness dooms it to failure, she believes.
Second, she said, recognize that schools can be an anchor for teens in care. Help teachers and community-centre staff address behaviours that stem from living in constant chaos, and keep kids attached to the school and their peers.
“We’ve had [the] Gove [ministry review], we’ve had [the] Hughes [ministry review], we have Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond’s reports. We go on this pendulum swinging back and forth—we’re pulling kids out, or we’re leaving them where they don’t necessarily have support,” Hodgson said. “Given the complexity of the system, and that most kids will be going in and out of care instead of being under a ‘continuing-care order’, we’re better off investing in all the kids, with concerted resources being pumped into neighbourhoods.”
Gale Stewart, executive director and founder of Aunt Leah’s Independent Lifeskills Society, sees the holes in the postmajority system up close. As a foster parent, she witnessed several 19-year-olds’ rocky transitions out of the system. So she founded a safe house for those who have aged out of the foster-care system and at-risk young moms, which grew into a multiservice organization that helps those aging out of care find their feet.
In an interview at an Aunt Leah’s fundraising event, Stewart also noted the need for more services across the board for young adults.
“If our most privileged children can live at home until they’re 28, why shouldn’t a child who has no parents, has been moved through 16 homes, has mental-health issues, a propensity for drug addictions, and may suffer from FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder]?…I remember going to university, and it took me three years for it to click in—‘Oh, I’m an adult now.’ ”
Of course, vulnerabilities don’t start at 19. Heather Bayes, president of the B.C. Federation of Foster Parent Associations, argues that kids enter the system traumatized. Most common are the grief, loss, and attachment problems associated with leaving their family. Many kids in care have also endured emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and possibly neglect.
“The needs of the children have increased,” she told the Straight in a phone interview from her home in Enderby, where for 14 years she has fostered kids. “There’s less money to get the assessments done that they need; they can take years. An experienced foster parent can spend 30 minutes with a child and say whether they have FASD. But that doesn’t pull any weight.”
To Bayes, a fast fix would be increasing the funding for assessments, so kids and teens can get the help they need when they need it—emotional, psychological, physical, and academic.
For 13 years, Nicholas Simons was a child-protection worker on- and off-reserve for the MCFD on the Sunshine Coast and then on contract with the Sechelt Nation. Before becoming the MLA for Powell River–Sunshine Coast in 2005, he said, he witnessed an 11-percent funding slash to the MCFD by the Liberal government at the time. As dramatic as the cuts were, he said, changes to policy have had a significant impact.
Simons is concerned that preventative care has been eroded: there’s little support available to parents through the MCFD, only apprehensions. This is something that could be changing under the ministry’s new direction.
He also noted that the vast majority of investigations stem from neglect caused by poverty. Any attempt to fix child protection is doomed, he said, without addressing family poverty.
“The families I know of who go to the food bank twice a week—there’s no way they can provide a safe home for their kids on the current social-assistance rates,” Simons said by phone from his constituency office in Powell River. “Every teacher knows in kindergarten which kids are having trouble at home. If you could identify them early, and set up a trusting relationship with a social worker whose job it is to help [outcomes would improve]. When a social worker walks in the door, a family is never happy to see them. I’d love to have a system where the social worker could offer them something.…If we made it a system like that, we’d have very few apprehensions.”
In other words, address poverty and give social workers more tools to help families that are struggling.
For Robinson, that approach might have made the difference. When he was an infant, the MCFD took him away from his mom. Until he was 10, he bounced between home and foster homes. Then his mom signed him over to the ministry and he became a permanent ward of the province.
Then at 19, he aged out with no money, no guidance, and no place to live. After floating through some dead-end jobs, he got a $5,000 government education grant for former foster kids at age 24, and got his chef’s certificate. But he hasn’t used it. Instead, he got sober, found his niche mentoring at-risk youth, and started fostering.
“There should be more money to help strengthen the biological parents’ abilities,” he said, noting that the foster kids he knows are often placed back in their biological homes before the family is ready. “I hear it all the time—the first priority is for the kids to [leave care and] go home. So the kids go to live with some good people for a while, or a shitty foster home; the parents go to detox, take a pee test, but they don’t have to do any emotional work. The parents are not getting fixed up that way. They’re just in a cycle, and that’s how it goes.”
In spite of the recent flurry of activity designed to improve the system, the B.C. Liberals’ turn playing mom and dad to the province’s most vulnerable kids won’t be judged on the basis of reports, initiatives, or strategies. Voters who are paying attention to child protection, and those who consider vulnerable citizens on their way to the ballot box, will evaluate it based on results: how many kids and youths receiving protective services are dying and getting hurt? Are education rates rising significantly? Is the government meeting its own targets?
With less than a year left in the Liberals’ term, voters may not see significant on-the-ground improvements—despite significant high-level change—before they cast their ballots.