I was employed as a social worker and youth worker in British Columbia’s provincial child and youth serving system for 15 years. I recently read the BC Representative for Children and Youth’s most recent report, which is titled “Who Protected Him? How B.C.’s Child Welfare System Failed One of Its Most Vulnerable Children.” The report investigates the child’s life in BC’s foster care system. A heart-breaking story of abuse and neglect in the very system that is designed to protect children. The report – and many of us – point the finger of blame at the government for its failure to protect him. Perhaps we need to look a little deeper….
The young boy who was the subject of the investigation was removed from his parents’ custody due to their inability to care for him. He entered the foster care system with a number of behavioural, developmental and emotional challenges which only worsened as he was moved from home to home, neglected, physically abused, and finally tasered by the RCMP. It was this last incident, which occurred when the boy was 11 years old, that triggered this investigation.
From my own experience, I can say that this boy’s story is similar to the stories of many other youths that I’ve worked with in the child welfare system . Inadequate care, support and protection lead to a series of tragic outcomes. It’s a story that many of us in the field see coming before it even happens. Social workers, youth workers, foster parents who come into this field out of a desire to support, protect and advocate for children often burn out quickly as they soon realize the system is not set up to adequately support them or the children. I’m not convinced that any one of us (from the front line to management) intentionally set out to harm these children. Nevertheless, due to a lack of resources, we are faced with difficult choices every day in our work, choices that eat at the core of our values and professional ethics, choices that leave us wondering, “Is that child safe?” “Will he or she be alive tomorrow?” We are not making these choices because we don’t care; we are simply doing the best we can with what we have, which isn’t a lot. These experiences leave many of us questioning whether or not we can continue doing this work knowing we are not able to provide the opportunities, protection and care that these children so desperately need. I have most recently left the field for these exact reason.
One of my most recent experiences in the field was working in downtown Vancouver with homeless youth who have mental health and addictions issues. These are the same youth that were bunted from the child and youth serving system due to their complex behaviours or to the mere fact that they aged out of care (turned 19 years old). Many do not possess the necessary life, social, emotional, family and academic skills to thrive or even survive in society; these are the same skills that many of us take for granted, like how to cook, clean, problem solve, build relationships, look for an apartment or work. As a result, these youth don’t have the chance to contribute to the economy and instead continue their downward spiral thus further costing the many systems they come in contact with including, justice, health and social.
We know that early intervention, prevention, appropriate and quality resources can change the trajectory of these children’s lives. This approach takes time, money and requires a long-term commitment from all of us. Protecting children will always cost money and will never generate revenue. We have to accept this and be willing to sacrifice or put aside some of our other needs to give these children a chance at life. Given a chance, they can become productive members of our society. An investment now means we are saving in the long term: there’s your economic argument.
We have to stop blaming the government for not protecting our province’s most vulnerable children. We can’t keep waving our finger at the government when we are the ones that vote for the politicians; we are ones who tell them what we want funded and what we want prioritized. Protecting children is a responsibility toward in which the citizens of this province must place an enormous amount of value and time. We must take a collective stance and demand an equal share in the task of protecting these children.
It is often said that a society is measured by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Isn’t it time that we as a society demand that the child and youth serving system have adequate supports and resources so our government can fulfill its mandate of being “a good parent” to children in care, despite what it may cost or how long it will take.
Photo by Tomas Skrinskas. All rights reserved.
Guest Author Bio
Penny Acton-Skrinskas has worked as a Youth Worker in residential and community-based treatment programs, as a Conduct Disorder Clinician with Child and Youth Mental Health, and as an Investigator with BC Representative for Children and Youth. She was most recently the Program Coordinator of the Innercity Youth Mental Health Program which supports homeless youth with mental health and addiction issues in downtown Vancouver. She is currently a contract faculty member of the Youth Justice Diploma program at Douglas College. She has recently started writing as a way to share her experiences, feelings and thoughts related to working in the human services field. She lives in Vancouver with her husband Tomas.
Penny is currently “recovering from social work.” Her first step in the recovery process is to share her experiences and insights with others. She figured writing would be a therapeutic way to get the load off her shoulders. Eventually, she’d like to return to social work in some form or another. Suggestions are appreciated.
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