I have just finished reading the latest (and Bernard Richard’s first) report from the Office of the Representative for Children and Youth, Broken Promises: Alex’s Story.
It is a devastating document that details in so many small and a few much more corrosively larger ways how one child, Alex Gervais, was failed to be nurtured by his biological family, (some, though not all,) The System (s) that assumed control of his life at a different stages AND many of those same people, those who worked and may still work in The System, those who made the chilling ongoing day to day and life decisions that impacted this child, this teenage over many, many years.)
I know, from my somewhat antediluvian experience as a social worker, that the files that are kept by the System, composed in neutral, factual, fearless ways, in no way capture the full story of the children and families they attempt to document. Documentation efforts may have increased and been improved upon over the intervening years but even with the increasingly compulsory nature of the child welfare system to document and the efforts to improve tracking and planning, the reality is that contracting out of residential care has amplified exponentially and direct social work, carefully crafted personal support, has suffered a great dissimulation over time.
There are so many excerpts from the report which do offer evidence of the awkward austerity of service delivery to Alex. The following describes his care journey from December 2004 until May 2006.
“Between that day, when Alex first came into care under the VCA, and May 2006, he was moved between nine different foster homes. There was no planning for any of these moves between foster placements, which included his first hotel stay at the age of eight – a two-week stint in a Best Western Hotel with a revolving door of child care workers looking after him. Often Alex was told, without any advance notice, that he was moving to a new placement. Case notes document the reasons for his many moves as being related to his “challenging” behaviours, which included destruction of his personal belongings, angry outbursts and aggression directed at other children.
Ironically, case notes prepared in January 2005 contained the observation that: “Behavioural difficulties tend to be reduced with a stable living environment.” However, when interviewed about the rationale for Alex’s high number of placements, social workers said that permanency for Alex was not a priority because his VCA status meant that he would eventually be returned to his father and stepmother.” Pg. 11
I suppose I am being a backseat quarterback. Alex was 7 ½ in December 2004. Finding the best placement for each child is not a simple task but I expect most social workers, not to say the general population of everyday backseat quarterbacks, would agree that nine placements over eighteen months would be devastating, even for an adult, let alone a child not yet ten. That one of those stays was in a hotel says more than enough for me to know that the system was in panic mode.
Later in the report, the full measure of system dysfunction is unravelled. What becomes evident is that the business of child welfare overwhelms the caregiver role. It is a reality that the Child Welfare system needs placement options. When they are delivered in large quantity by a few providers, social workers have to tread carefully, not upset the resource applecart.
This powerful and damning point was made incredibly clearly in the report.
“When the Representative’s investigators asked MCFD officials why there was a lack of appropriate financial oversight on even basic financial matters, the answer was the same as the response given for the ministry’s failure to meaningfully oversee practice issues. Namely, that with respect to arm’s-length businesses contracted to look after youth such as Alex, it is generally left up to the agency to decide how contract funds are to be spent, and to ensure they are being spent appropriately. In this case, agency oversight appears to have effectively meant no oversight, which was at times tantamount to gross negligence.” Pg.’s 45-46
My Final Thoughts for now:
Though I believe that as many people as possible should read this report, I imagine few likely will. It is a difficult read and almost always alarming, concerning, gut-wrenching. It is also just another in a litany of reports on the failures of the BC Child Welfare system.
There is no comfort to be had in the slow unrolling of these excruciatingly devastating, albeit essential reports.
Make no mistake, I believe there are successes in Child Welfare. How many and for whom will hardly never be the story told. These successes are a result of workers doing their job quietly, systematically, professionally, gaining the bureaucratic buttresses they require, exhibiting the excellent qualities one would want in social workers, in the myriad supports systems in play.
But the inability of the system to ameliorate its clearly identified, ongoing failures, the failure to provide adequate staffing, the failure to provide and monitor sufficient resources, the failure to imbed a practical means of self analysis and criticism, means that deaths will in all likelihood continue, and that young people in the care of the State will be offered a lesser service, a lesser quality of life and access to healing, to opportunities that all children, especially children in care, so richly deserve.