British Columbia

Child welfare: Former foster kids on what needs to change

MJ Ziemann and Meredith Graham spent their teen years in the foster care system. Here's what they'd like to see change.

'We need to wrap around that person so their choices are steeped in love and opportunity and potential'

MJ Ziemann and Meredith Graham spent their teen years in the foster care system. (Stephen Quinn/CBC)

It's been a troubling year for B.C.'s child welfare system, with several high-profile suicides of youth in care and two damning reports raising calls for an immediate overhaul of the system.

CBC Radio host Stephen Quinn sat down with two young women who grew up in government care to hear what improvements they'd like to see change, on Tuesday morning's edition of The Early Edition.

MJ Ziemann is a recent graduate of Simon Fraser University with a degree in psychology, and Meredith Graham is a youth worker at St. Leonard's Youth & Family Services.

Alex Gervais, Nick Lang, and Carly Fraser, all teens in care who took their lives while in ministry care. (CBC)

How old were you when you were placed in government care?

Meredith: I was 16. Previous to that I had left home at 13 and bounced around couch surfing. A couple of my high school teachers took me in, and I reached out to the government. I was running from an incredibly abusive situation. My mother and stepfather were hurting in their own right and just were not able to care for me. I struggled with depression, I was quite suicidal and I think the great safety concerns finally clued them in that something needed to happen.

MJ: I had to flee my home as well when I was 14. I have three older siblings, two of which were actually in government care, which was kind of interesting because I kind of had to be my own advocate. I've had to work against a lot of people who were telling me things differently, like I was overexaggerating, or I was wrong.

Similarly to Meredith I also struggled with mental health issues and it was around that time that I became very acutely suicidal. They kind of gave me an ultimatum: either you can live in a group home or you can apply for underage income assistance, or you can live in a shelter. So that was when I became a ward of the state and lived in a group home.

Paige, 19, died of a drug overdose after a troubled life on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In a report released earlier this year, representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said Paige spent her entire life in harm's way because front-line workers didn't protect her. (Representative for Children and Youth)

When you were getting close to aging out the age of 19, how worried were you?

Meredith: Completely terrified. You're displaced when you're younger, and you don't belong and you don't have any attachments, and you're trying to forge your way, and when you turn 19, that happens all over again. No one's really in it with you. It's so incredibly lonely.

MJ: I guess the way to word it is: "The worst feeling in the world." It's that immense feeling of worthlessness and nobody wants you.

I had some connections, but you kind of look at it and see yourself on the backburner of people's lives. People cared, but to a certain degree, but when it's 12 o'clock at night and you're having PTSD or flashbacks and you're all by yourself, it's "Sorry, I have kids, I can't come over to your house right now and help you out."

What are some services that you think you could have benefited from back then?

MJ: Just the sense of organic relationships. The system creates this sense of professionalism and boundaries, and 9 to 5. But I work 9 to 5, and now there's nobody there for me at the end of the day.

Meredith: You're 19, so you're expected to have all these pieces together. To take care of yourself, make your own food, do your own dishes, but mentally and emotionally, I might have been 19, but I felt like I was four sometimes. I wanted a hug. I wanted someone to cradle me and be with me. All those emotional pieces.

What changes would you like to see in the child welfare system?

Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Children and Family Development, has been under fire for much of 2015, with the opposition NDP calling for resignation. (CBC)

Meredith: There isn't enough money. The workers are being stretched to do what they need to do with very little resources and time. They sacrifice a lot of their personal lives, and I think it comes from a good heart. I don't think you get into this job without wanting to change the world in some capacity.

With Mr. Plecas' report, I don't think we can necessarily prevent every single person from dying, but we need to wrap around that person so their choices are steeped in love and opportunity and potential.

MJ: I think we need to focus on the demographic we're talking about. It's really easy to get disillusioned and paint every foster care experience with the same brush. What we're really talking about is these youth who don't receive secure placements, because that is the issue.

We need to stop the blame game. When we're focused on blaming people we're redirecting our thoughts away from solutions. We need to think of it as a public problem and not a ministry problem or we're never going to get to the solution which I think comes from listening to youth voices. We need to look at the communities where they live and educate the public.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

 To hear the full interview click on the audio labelled Child welfare: Former foster kids on what needs to change on the CBC's The Early Edition.