Another death in care…A letter to the editor

T he state  care of children of all ages is a difficult and convoluted task. The care of older youth has a built in best before date. Time speeds along. It often gets overwhelming for both the youth and those involved in shaping and supporting youth  in those final months.

Here is a letter sent late last night to the Vancouver Sun in response to one of the stories that attempts to address the life and times of Alex Gervais, who died recently while in care.

“Dear Editor,

Again, another tragedy has befallen the Ministry of Children and Family Development. While the key offence appears to be the placement of a youth, indeed an unknown number of youths, in motels and hotels and the like,
I wonder if the issue is not something much more insidiously systemic.
For a child welfare system to work effectively, and I doubt many do, what is most required are sufficient staff to handle the workload.
While a significant part of the workload is servicing the needs of both kids in care and families and youth in crisis, another critical function is resource recruitment.
I would surmise that Alex Gervais had been through a long string of placements.
At eighteen years of age, he likely had been on Independent Living for a period of time.
Unless it has changed considerably from my time as a youth social worker,
Independent Living is a hugely underfunded program where youth who have been deemed to capable of managing some aspects of life on their own.
Some reach that stage by burning resources bridges.
Others truly are mature enough to live on their own (or more frequently in some shared arrangement.)
No matter how mature they are, their options for housing are limited.
Cash is meagre. If they do find some cheap housing, it may not last.
If they are exhibiting antisocial behaviour, their tenancy will be brief; youth in care move often once on their own.
Although youth on Independent Living can fare well, they usually need a vibrant support system, teachers, child-care-workers, an engaged social worker, family still involved.
Once a youth has tasted some of the more obvious benefits of Independent Living, freedom from oversight, an unrestricted existence, it is difficult for them to transition  back into a Group Home when something goes wrong.
Most foster homes would shy away from temporarily housing an 18 year old unless he was a known and safe quantity.
At this stage, there simply aren’t any viable options.
The social worker and the supervisor are forced to make
an unpalatable decision from very few alternatives.
They know they work in a system that is under-resourced.
I know nothing about Alex Gervais’s short life.
Whether his death was a horrible accident or an equally terrible, desperate act of a lonely youth, I doubt it was the hotel placement alone that killed him; rather it was a system that constantly needs more of everything.
More workers; more tolerance; more answers to often unanswerable and complex situations that, nevertheless, also need a carefully constructed triage each and every day.
Even with all of that there is often never quite enough of what is needed.
With care and much regret,
Bill Engleson”


  • Thank you Bill for sharing these wise words that encompasses this very sad situation from someone who has vast experience and a perspective that I can appreciate.

  • Such a unfortunate situation. Your take on these events is always grounding. Thanks.

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