BREAKING THE LINK BETWEEN FOSTER CARE AND YOUTH HOMELESSNESS

Watch Video

40%of B.C. street-involved kids once livedin foster care

Each year, 1,100 kids "age out" of the system. That means there's about 5,500 former foster kids between 19 and 24 in B.C.

About half of street kids are aboriginal

 

Natalie

Natalie was never sure why Alberta’s social workers took her from her home.

Sure, at 10, she was fighting with her mom. But what pre-teen isn’t?

Blue-eyed, with a pixie presence, the now-26-year-old is working hard to make sure her four-year-old daughter never has to endure what she has. Natalie lives in a B.C. Housing apartment in Vancouver. She works cleaning restaurants. She’d like to become a naturopath one day.

In spite of some disabilities -- she has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress from her time on the street, and is a recovering heroin addict – she has participated in nearly every outreach program for at-risk youth. A striking mix of Ojibwe, Italian and English, with a flash of pink hair, Natalie is a beautiful, sharp, and accessible former kid in care.

Her first foster home was fine, she reports, until her foster mom had her dog put down. The second and third ones were also fine –though her behavior grew worse as she became angrier and more frustrated with the separation from her family. Natalie was then placed with her grandmother, then her mother; neither could contain her outbursts. At 13, she was sent to a group home.

That’s when the violence started. Twice a day, she said, the staff would disappear for an hour, locking themselves in an office for “check-in.” During that time, the kids would beat each other. Natalie recalls barricading herself in her room, back against the door, feet tensed against her bed, to keep the other kids out. She also recalls being punched until she fell, then kicked when she was down. She was at the bottom of the food chain, she says.

At 15, she started to run away, or “go AWOL,” back to her mom’s house. Not welcome there, she hooked up with a boyfriend who taught her how to survive on the street. The next year, she became pregnant, had a miscarriage, and was taken into custody when she checked in to the hospital for the surgery. For the next two years, she lived behind high walls in forced treatment. When she was released at age 18 she fled to Vancouver’s Granville Street.

The Granville strip has long been a mix of runaways, former kids in care and other youth from Surrey, North Vancouver and other suburbs, attracted by the “glamour” of street life, Natalie explains.

“They don’t understand, they’ve never woken up shivering.”

At 22, when she got pregnant with Mimi, the social workers started swarming again. Now, she said, they’re nearly gone – just on hand to offer support, such as paying for childcare.

“If I had not gone through everything–if I’d just stayed at home [and not been apprehended]–I don’t think I’d have ever been on the street,”

Natalie says, acknowledging that her family could have used some family counseling or parenting classes. “I would not have been beaten up in the group home. I had a good group of friends at home – before they switched me out to another school. I think I would have had a better life. I wouldn’t have half the problems I do now.”

Kevin

Sometimes as he walks along East Hastings Street and beyond, Kevin is transported back to Red Deer, Alberta. The sulfur smell of train tracks reminds him of playing in the forest behind his foster home. The scent of a certain kind of lotion women wear recalls for him his first foster mother. Old cars and trees, the smell of escaping when home got too rough.

He doesn’t miss it. His biological mom gave him up as an infant. Beatings and hunger is what he remembers from his first foster home, where he lived to age 12.

“I was a really good hockey player,”

he recalled over tea at the Waves coffee shop on Main and Cordova in Vancouver.

“I was a good goalie, a good forward. And a good student. I’d read books every day, all day. I was just out of control. Didn’t take any crap from no one. That showed in school, where I’d get into fights. No one ever figured out what was going on at home though. They just thought I was a bad kid.”

After one especially terrible beating, which left bloody welts from his neck to his hips, he left for good, stole money and took a bus to Edmonton. A cop found him, saw his back, and sent him to a group home. But he continued to fight.

That got him bounced around from group home to group home. For escape, he read constantly. Finally, at a friend’s house, he met a wealthy family from West Vancouver. They agreed to foster him, and he flew to the West Coast to a new home in the British Properties.

“I remember coming home from school and they’d have all this stuff out to make sandwiches,” Kevin said. “I could eat whatever I liked. To this day, I still love grilled cheese.”

But it wouldn’t last. Fighting at school and some low-level petty crime got him a one-way ticket back to Edmonton. Walking away from the airport, he was picked up by a group of men in a limo. Thanks to his pocket knife, he narrowly escaped a rape.

That’s when he hit the streets. He was 15. Since then, he’s lived in Edmonton and Vancouver, on the street, in shelters and in prison.

Eva

Eva survived a schizophrenic mother, an abusive step-father who threw her out of her home at 14, a suicide attempt, and less-than-ideal foster care placements – but graduated from high school and went on to college. She’s never been homeless, or addicted to drugs, and she’s employed and self-supporting. Now, she speaks out about foster care at international conferences; she’s about to earn a degree so she can be a children’s advocate. In other words, she seems very resilient. But don’t let any of that fool you.

“People sometimes ask me how I turned out okay,” Eva said. “Well, maybe I didn’t. The word ‘resilient’ is a double-edged sword. When I’ve been labeled ‘resilient,’ it stopped me from getting help.

“It’s that profile – the sweet kid in foster care – that’s wrong. It’s not enough to look at someone’s smile and think they’re fine. They are screaming on the inside.” Dividing foster kids into those that are resilient and those who are not is false, Eva said. The abuse – sexual or physical – or neglect that lead a child into the system, the shame associated with being in the system, and the trauma of losing family and identity, affect nearly every child touched by the system, she argued. Yes, foster kids can be strong. But that’s not the same as resilience – bouncing back and acting “normal” in spite of their experiences.

Eva’s family fell apart in her Grade 8 year. A self-described “nerd,” she started high school in a class for gifted students. A few months in, as conflict with her stepfather rose, she was skipping most classes and her grades plummeted. She wondered why no one seemed to notice. She stopped caring, she said. “I was in survival mode.” After she tried to kill herself, one teacher came to see her in the hospital, bearing a gift: Man’s Search for Meaning, by concentration camp survivor Victor E. Frankl. “I thought it was my fault that I was struggling, because I was stupid or crazy,” she remembers.

She spent most of her teens in foster care – a string of emotionally empty placements. After she ‘aged out’ of care at 19, she stayed with a friend’s family. While she was able to finish high school and start university, the smiling, “resilient”, attractive girl broke down in her early 20s.

“For me, aging out of care was like those [Wile E. Coyote] cartoons: he runs off a cliff, and he’s still running even though there’s nothing under him. The moment he looks down, that’s when he falls. It’s not overly dramatic to say I had a complete existential crisis.” Leaving college, and a string of bad boyfriends, led to some dark nights, she said.

“It wasn’t until I started volunteering and meeting people who had been through what I had, that I started to heal,” she said. “Victor Frankl survived the concentration camp by believing that his suffering had been for something. For me, from there, everything just clicked into place.” Eva started a support group for teens with parents who suffer from mental illness. She found her meaning. But Eva still carries the scars of the original abuse, and the abandonment and neglect she felt in foster care.

5hadow

When he was just seven years old, 5hadow was already parenting his younger brother. Their mom, who had paranoid schizophrenia and a heroin addiction, would walk out, leaving him alone with a toddler screaming in a high chair. 5hadow fed his brother toast and jam, climbing up on the counter to reach the ingredients.

This changed little as they moved across the province as kids, from Tofino to Salmon Arm to Sooke. Eventually, the boys moved in with their dad, who had a succession of different wives. None of them accepted the brothers. His mom disappeared.

Finally, in his mid-teens, 5hadow was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that’s treatable with drugs – though the drugs made him lazy and fat, he says, unable to complete high school. He developed a video gaming addiction and his weight ballooned to 118 kg. Then his dad kicked him out and tried to get the government to pay for a youth agreement (an independent living contract worth about $1,100 a month) for him.

“I was a living hell to raise,”
he admits.

The Ministry refused, so 5hadow was placed in a group home. There, he met several teens whom he still considers to be his foster brothers and sisters. He didn’t mind the place.

But when staff found that he had stolen a police Taser he was kicked out. Just turning 19 and with no life skills, he recalls, he was ushered out the door. Since then 5hadow has bounced between friends’ couches, squats, jail, the street and low-rent hotel rooms. Now, he spends most days standing on Vancouver’s Granville Street, rapping into a portable sound system, hoping for spare change. He gets a disability pension of just over $900 a month, but his intense behavior, he says, gets him kicked out of most places.

At 22, he’s gorgeous. Just over 6’2” and 220 pounds, with broad, Dutch shoulders, 5hadow has the long, lean build of a runner – though he can’t run anymore. His sandy hair stands on end, and his blue eyes fade in and out. Sometimes, he is sharp and witty. Then he seems to crawl into himself and disappear. He’s angry with his dad for being such a flaky role model. If he had been more interested in parenting, 5hadow believes, he would have made it through high school and beyond.

In another life, he says, he would like to study psychology and literature. He’s written a novel. He has also stopped taking the meds that control his bipolar disorder. “I’m a heavy down here on the street scene,” he says. “I consider myself a jester. My dad says, ‘You’re just giving them a show. What do you get?’

I just rap about good and evil clashing. It’s what I see.”

Candi & Melissa

Sitting on a couch in a Commercial Drive social services office, Candi seems as composed and confident as any other 30-year-old. Her long, thick hair is brushed flat and shiny, skinny jeans and boots looking more West End than East Side. She twists her wrist up into the light. Along one vein are 14 tiny, raised white dots: IV scars on her sensitive skin—a record, she said, of her many overdoses and suicide attempts.

Hearing her story, it’s easy to understand. Starting when she was a toddler, she said, her father – himself a survivor of residential schools -- started sexually assaulting her and her brother. At seven, social workers took her away and placed her, alone, in a foster home, where the abuse continued.

By 13, she was back home. That’s when she started using alcohol, pot, acid, heroin, cocaine. She dropped out of school, was sent to live in group homes, got kicked out, hit the streets, and had her first baby at 19. Then more, one girl and two boys by the time she was 26. But in the midst of all that, she dumped her boyfriend after he attacked her, got clean and sober, and graduated from high school.

“The ministry is sometimes helpful,” Candi said, mentioning that social workers often intrude, uninvited, in her raising of her own children.

“Most of the time they’re not. They criticize me a lot. They just put fear into me -- even though I’ve followed through on everything.”

When I was a child, I was never diagnosed with anything. Now I’m on PWD [a disability payment] because I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. It makes it hard for me to deal with emotional situations.”

Her pain is not over, though. Candi recently discovered that her 12-year-old, Melissa, is using drugs. Melissa also revealed that she too was sexually abused, by someone in the family. Now she’s cutting the skin on her arms –. Her friends live on the street. She’s not coming home at night. The cycle has started again. Candi lives in fear that her children will be taken away, that they’ll be abused in foster care as she was. She knows she’s strong. She knows she’s a fighter. But Candi’s past still haunts her, just as it does her daughter.

“No matter what I achieve today – college, sobriety, my past still hovers there. Sometimes when I look at myself, all I see is my inner scars. It’s like I’m inside out.”

Kyle

From the time he was a small boy, Kyle’s mother was in constant trouble with her drug dealers. When she didn’t have the money to pay them, she would let them rape him as a “payment” for her debt. This arrangement lasted from toddlerhood until he was about 12, when the family moved from rural Chilliwack to Vancouver.

But his mom continued to beat him. Once, he said, she ripped his arm out of its socket. Even now, one shoulder hangs lower than the other, and his head points left. All through elementary and high school, he would show up to class with bruises on his face and limbs. Not once, he says, did a teacher ask him about the marks.

As a child, Kyle was never in care. It wasn’t until he was referred to a counselor for skipping classes at 16, that his “case” was flagged. He told his counselor that he wanted to kill his mom. That he wanted to kill the men that came to the house for him. So the counselor sent him to a secure psychiatric facility, where he was locked up for two weeks. His mom told the doctors he was lying. They believed her, he says, and not him.

When he was discharged, he refused to go home, citing abuse. So he was offered a group home. From 16 until he ‘aged out’ at 19, he lived in 25 placements, he reports, including time on a youth agreement (independent living contract). Miraculously, he managed to graduate from high school. On his 19th birthday, he was evicted from his apartment as the Ministry of Children and Family Development was no longer paying his rent. One week later, he spent Christmas on a mattress on the floor of a downtown shelter, surrounded by other homeless people, most of them high.

Now 21, Kyle is a veteran of Vancouver’s shelters, a college drop-out, and a now-clean former addict. His income comes from Welfare, and he believes he qualifies for disability payments. His latest psych evaluation showed that he has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and bipolar disorder. But he is overwhelmed with the task of getting a copy of his evaluation and finding and filling out the necessary forms.

So instead he lives with a former youth counselor, a connection to his Aboriginal heritage. He can’t get official First Nations status, he says, because his father’s band doesn’t want him.

He wants in, though, believing that he’s the inheritor of north coastal masks, of hereditary dances and songs. It’s a strong tradition based on a lineage of dignity quite different from the the horrific abuse, humiliation and mistrust he has encountered so far in his young life.

Read More Stories

Kids and teens usually enter the foster care system for three reasons: at home, they were neglected, physically abused, sexually abused, or all three.

Since 2007, 1,228 B.C. children and youth have been “critically injured” in the system – everything from innocent accident, to attempted suicides

Since 2007, B.C. 534 children and youth have died in the system, or soon after leaving care. About half of those were not from natural causes

Some argue that the foster care and child protection system recreates the damage of last century’s Indian Residential Schools

Learn from the past, argues Cindy Blackstock, and the
numbers of abused and neglected kids will plummet.

When she was in her early 20s, Cindy Blackstock worked in B.C. group homes to earn her university tuition. She realized then,she said, that the teens she was caring for –most of them aboriginal -- had been taken from their families into a system that was often worse than the homes they’d left. That’s when she got angry. And when she started fighting, with her gentle, sharp style.

In the 30 years since then Blackstock, a member of the northern BC Gitksan Nation, has worked to end Canada’s 160-year legacy of removing aboriginal children from their homes. First as a social worker, with Squamish First Nation and on the North Shore, later in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side.

Now, she’s the Executive Director of the First Nations Family and Child Caring Society in Ottawa. This summer, her organization held the federal government’s feet to the fire before a human rights tribunal.  Read More

The last of Canada’s infamous residential schools—scenes of frequent abuse where kids were beaten simply for speaking their native language—closed in 1996. But chronic underfunding of family services, child protection and education on reserves, she argues, has led to yet another generation of aboriginal kids being ripped from their families—this time, into foster care.

In B.C., more than half (53 percent) of children in foster care are aboriginal – ten times their presence in the population as a whole. In 2008, the Auditor General of Canada noted that aboriginal children are six to eight times more likely to be placed in care than non-aboriginal children.

And once there, few fare well. Half the kids on Vancouver streets are aboriginal; and four in 10 of those have been in foster care. Among aboriginal boys who are permanent wards of the Crown B.C., fewer than one in four graduate from high school on time.

Just like residential school, Blackstock said, foster care brings with it the trauma of losing your family and community. And she blames the same root cause: racial discrimination. It has to end, Blackstock says. She believes Canada knows better, and can do better. Here is more of what she has to say:

Q:Why do you say that today’s foster care is a legacy of Canada’s residential schools?

Blackstock:There are two major themes and connections. First, there’s the multigenerational effects of residential schools that have created hardships for families today. The children who attended them are now parents. They’re lacking parental role models, and there’s neglect and abuse and substance abuse. Their kids are apprehended by the state, just as they were. Second, there’s the same case of dramatic underfunding [of education and other services] of First Nations children by the government today, as there was during the residential school era. That underfunding has links to First Nations children being removed from their families in numbers greater than during residential school period. The same pattern is there, resulting in the same thing.

Q:So, should B.C. just stop apprehending aboriginal kids?

Blackstock:I’m not an idealist. I think some kids need to be in care. But we have got to make sure that when we remove a child, we offer them a better life.

Q:What’s a better vision?

Blackstock:Ninety percent of kids aging out of care (when the government stops funding their foster parents or group homes, at age 19) go back to their families. We need to support them in having good relations with their families. We shouldn’t be divorcing them from their family. They’re worthy of building positive relationships in their life. So that when they go back home, they can say, ‘You know mom, I don’t want to be around you when you’re using crack. But I still love you.’ People are too quick to judge these families. Every family has a crazy relative in it. Even the best parent will get frustrated and struggle. The difference is, most of us are people who have their basic needs met: clean water, nutritious food in the fridge, warm house. In a community where there’s no water or sewer, where education is underfunded – it makes parenting that much harder.

Q:In B.C., 53 percent of kids in care are aboriginal. That’s a really appalling statistic.
What would you say to those who think First Nations just need to get it together,
and fix their own families and communities – without relying on government?

Blackstock:Too often we hear, “Just pull [your]selves up from bootstraps.” That assumes that aboriginal people have the same opportunities to succeed as other Canadians. I worked for the Squamish Nation [as a social worker] and I worked for the province just across the street. I was flabbergasted by the change, just by walking across the street. At Squamish, there were high voltage lines over the child protection office that sparked when it rained. People were expected to go in. There was nothing for family support. This was a nation that invested its own revenues to top up the federal funds. I did child protection in West Vancouver, too, and I never had to go knocking on doors and ask people to top up the budget. Some people say remoteness contributes to the problems. That’s a bogus argument. You’re only remote until they find diamonds under you, then you’ll have politicians eating seal meat up where you are. I say, your best natural resource is kids. That’s what you should be investing in. For conservatives who say ‘You need to pull yourselves up by the bootstraps,’ I say, ‘It’s in your interest to fix this. You’re setting yourselves up for increased crime, increased mental health [illness] rates, when you’re not paying attention to these social gaps.’

Q:What should policy makers have learned from the residential school experience?

Blackstock:One of my great heroes is Peter Henderson Bryce. He was a physician recruited by the Department of Indian Affairs to conduct a study in 1904, about what was happening in residential schools. At one school, he found a death rate [of] 24 percent in the first year. Over three years, it was 40 percent. He came back and said, the horrible news is the death rates. But the good news is, the vast majority are tuberculosis deaths. And we know how to fix that. Provide better nutrition, improve ventilation; don’t exhaust them through servitude; don’t put sick kids in with healthy kids. The government never implemented his reforms. He left his post in 1922, after writing letters and letters calling for improvements in residential schools. When he retired, he wrote a book called The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921 – that’s where he does his public rant about ‘My god, what are they doing?’ So it is really clear that people of the time thought this [residential schools] was really wrong. Still, government dismissed people bringing things forward. Now it’s the same case: dramatic underfunding by the government, which has links to First Nations children being removed from their families. Canada has tried to derail [the Human Rights tribunal] through legal loopholes. It’s the same pattern resulting in the same thing. We knew better then, and we know better now.

Q:What would you say to aboriginal teens who are currently in foster care and on the streets?

Blackstock:I would say, number one, there are things that you can take responsibility for in your own life.[But] you can get involved in change. To the kids in care and their families, I’d say, they are the very reason why I fight so hard. The stories I heard when I was on the front lines. When I get tired or frustrated, I think of them.

Q:What needs to change, so that the mass apprehension of aboriginal children becomes history?

Blackstock:Provide a wider array of supports so families can stay together. End poverty, improve housing, fund education equitably.

In the U.S., the National Centre for Housing and Child Welfare (NCHCW) did a pilot [project] where they reallocated child protection funds towards housing. What they found was, they’re saving taxpayers about 80 percent of expenditures on social services, just by stabilizing housing. It’s proof that most families can stay together. Allocate dollars to housing. Although it will not happen overnight, we should see the numbers of kids in care and the prison system decrease substantially.

It’s not just the kids on the street

Many young B.C. adults are unskilled, unschooled, and broke.

Use the arrows below to read the whole article

Long before he was B.C. premier, Mike Harcourt was a kid, and he worked entry-level jobs, just like everyone else. But unlike today, the pay was phenomenal. It’s enough to make any chicken-frying, tuition-borrowing member of Gen Y drool. After stints as a golf caddy, a gas jockey, a camp counselor and a pulp mill worker, Harcourt settled into eight years with the Canadian Pacific Railway, serving in the dining car. For five days at a time, rolling from Vancouver to Winnipeg and back, he earned $1.19 an hour. With tips, his take-home pay was $600 a month – or $3,821 in 2013 dollars, adjusted for inflation.“In the 1960s, that was pretty good dough,” Harcourt told the Tyee Solutions Society. “Tuition was $400 a year at UBC; books were $100; I had a convertible 1951 [Morris] Mini Minor and drove it all year paying for the gas, oil and insurance. When I made $600 for four months in the summer, I could afford all that for the year – and still have a little bit for the Fraser Arms [Pub]. “Of course, it’s all relative to where the dollar is now.” You can say that again. An unskilled young adult earning a year’s worth of living and schooling expenses in four months of work? In 2013 that’s as rare as a Sasquatch sighting.

The median income today for 20- to 24-year-olds in greater Vancouver is just $983 a month – adjusted for inflation a quarter of what the then-unskilled Harcourt was making. Twenty-fiveto 34-year-olds make $2,775 a month on average – and that includes those whiz-kids with medical degrees and trades tickets. With incomes like these, it’s small wonder nearly half of this group today lives with their parents. The era Harcourt grew up in represents a Golden Age compared to today’s employment desert. Fifty years ago, B.C.’s resource sector offered plenty of well-paying jobs to youth without postsecondary – even without high school. No longer. Anyone wanting to fill any of the one million jobs expected to be created in B.C. over the next decade is going to need some kind of postsecondary certification. While the high-pay, low-education jobs are gone, the people needing them have not. In 2013, B.C. still has plenty of unskilled young adults, kids who dropped out of high school, dropped out of postsecondary, or took programs at university that didn’t offer job-ready skills. In fact, one in five B.C. teens don’t graduate high school on time – a huge swath of the general population.

One in four B.C. young adults don’t even register for post-secondary training (and among aboriginal youth, the number reaches two-thirds).With incomes like these, it’s small wonder nearly half of this group today lives with their parents The era Harcourt grew up in represents a Golden Age compared to today’s employment desert. Fifty years ago, B.C.’s resource sector offered plenty of well-paying jobs to youth without postsecondary – even without high school. No longer. Anyone wanting to fill any of the one million jobs expected to be created in B.C. over the next decade is going to need some kind of postsecondary certification. While the high-pay, low-education jobs are gone, the people needing them have not. In 2013, B.C. still has plenty of unskilled young adults, kids who dropped out of high school, dropped out of postsecondary, or took programs at university that didn’t offer job-ready skills.In fact, one in five B.C. teens don’t graduate high school on time – a huge swath of the general population. One in four B.C. young adults don’t even register for post-secondary training (and among aboriginal youth, the number reaches two-thirds).

Among those that do, 15,000 leave B.C. public universities and colleges each year without earning the credential they enrolled for. B.C.-wide, barely more than half (52 percent) of us have completed any postsecondary certification whatsoever. And not everyone who’s together enough to stay in school and graduate gets to use their education. At Douglas College, for instance, 96 percent of those who enroll graduate. Within two years, three out of four have a full-time job. But that leaves a quarter without full time work in their chosen field.Among history baccalaureate graduates from all B.C. public institutions, just one in eight find a degree-related job within two years of picking up their sheepskin. And grads, by and large, are the lucky ones. More than half of kids leaving B.C.’s foster care system haven’t completed high school.If the experience here is anything like that in the States (B.C. doesn’t keep track) barely three out of a hundred will go on to complete a postsecondary credential.

But failure to get the training that B.C’s soaring job market demands goes far beyond the most vulnerable. Harcourt, for one, calls the skills gap among youth B.C.’s top challenge. “All these kids that are wandering and directionless – that’s the biggest issue of today,” the former Premier said. “We need to give it the resources and the stature it should have.” That, he says, means politicians, business, educators, parents and youth all have to be involved—starting with the woman who now has his old job. “This needs the full weight of the Premiers’ office, to bring in all the other people to help make it happen.” BC is going to need its ‘lost’ generation of young workers, he says, “and they need us.”