The children are always collateral damage

I read a news item today about how the Ministry of Children and Family Development is failing children in care in British Columbia. This is not the first time a report has been issued criticizing how our foster care system consistently falls short with children who have been removed from their family homes.

How do I know this? One of the things people don’t know about me is that I worked in social services for many years. When I first left school, I worked for an employment program for individuals on income assistance. As I was writing The End of East, I worked for an agency that provided support to families who adopted children with special needs. While these two jobs appeared to not have a lot in common, one connecting thread was foster care. Many of the people who were struggling to survive on income assistance were once foster children. Most of the children available for adoption in Canada are currently waiting in the foster care system. Vulnerable children in care often grow up to be vulnerable adults. I saw it all.

Listen, I’ve sat in meetings where Ministers promised to leave no child behind and where Ministers admitted that occasional deaths of children in care were unavoidable. They promised to do better. They promised money. They promised results.

It never got better.

I always say that it takes a good seven years, sometimes more, to start writing about any one event in your life. It’s only now, exactly seven years after I left social services to focus on my writing, that I’m writing a novel about the children who are removed from their homes and who are delivered–stunned, scared and confused–to foster homes populated by people who may or may not understand them. Children are especially good at accepting change; after all, their whole lives are built around incidents entirely beyond their control. But how does a child rationalize an upheaval of the most elemental aspects of his existence–home and family? I remember what it was like when I was a little girl and my father was dying of cancer. I spent hours sitting alone in my room, running the facts of his illness around and around in my head, trying to understand why he was sick and why I was the only kid I knew who was going to lose a parent like this. No matter how I juggled all the different pieces around, my father was still going to die and I still didn’t understand why it had to be him.

The idea of saving anyone, much less children, is problematic. We’re all human, we all have choices to make and none of us is perfect. But the foster care system is there to be a last stop, an emergency safety net when children are in immediate danger. Arguably, this is one of the most important functions of government. Not adding amendments to how we file our taxes. Not increasing the size of our garbage bins. Our government is supposed to make sure we leave no one at risk. Not the homeless man who freezes to death in January. Not the elderly woman who lives alone and can’t read her medication labels. Not the child whose parents have left her alone for days at a time while they binged on meth. The pages in our tax returns are proliferating, but we haven’t been able to guarantee the safety of the people who need help the most.

A mom I met during my time in social services once wrote an essay that ended with one hugely influential idea. We’re not here to tell our children what to do or whom to love. We’re here to walk with them, witness their successes and failures, and keep them safe. When they need it–if they need it–we hold them up. It’s not about saving. It’s about allowing loved and loving adults to emerge safely, in any way they want.

It breaks my heart that our government, the ones who should be catching us when we stumble, can’t even do this. What a waste. The children they lost could have been the ones to ensure, really ensure, that every infant, toddler and schoolkid in our province survives, flourishes and contributes. What a waste.

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