British Columbia

Indigenous teen's death sparks calls for youth in care to be a priority in B.C. election

Advocates are skeptical Indigenous youth in care will receive adequate attention during the campaign. It comes after a 17-year-old was found dead in his bedroom closet at an Abbotsford group home, four days after going missing.

17-year-old found dead in his bedroom closet at Abbotsford group home, 4 days after going missing

B.C.'s three main party leaders, from left to right: John Horgan, Sonia Furstenau, Andrew Wilkinson. (CBC)

Youth advocates are skeptical that the issue of children in government care will receive adequate attention as B.C.'s politicians blitz the province in a whirlwind snap election.

Their skepticism follows news of the death of a 17-year-old First Nations youth who was discovered in his bedroom closet at an Abbotsford group home on Sept. 18, four days after going missing.

All of the party leaders addressed the tragedy on the campaign trail this week — but not before being prompted by reporters. CBC News asked each of them what their government would do to better protect Indigenous youth in care.

It's pretty astounding to hear about the level of trauma experienced in foster care.- Jeska Slater, Indigenous youth worker

"Our commitment to kids in care, particularly Indigenous children, is to revitalize the kith-and-kin program to make sure that children are not apprehended and taken away from family," NDP Leader John Horgan said on Friday.

"Clearly we have more work to do," he said, noting that keeping kids in homes within their culture is fundamental to B.C.'s implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau says it's an issue that needs to be acted on with urgency. She also pointed to the principles of UNDRIP, which became enshrined in provincial law one year ago.

"[It] recognizes that Indigenous peoples have sovereignty over their children," said Furstenau. "We have to turn to Indigenous communities and say, 'Bring us your solutions,' and our job is to support and fund those solutions."

B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson calls the care of children by government a critically important function, pointing to the disproportionate number of Indigenous youth in the child-care system.

"It goes back to the entire lineage of the residential school system and the current state of challenges that our Indigenous communities face," Wilkinson said at a campaign stop in Port Moody. "It's a core function of government to make sure Indigenous youth are looking at a world of opportunity; higher education is critically important." 

Proactive rather than reactive

Though the political leaders have said the issue of youth in government care is a priority, advocates fear it will be overshadowed by other issues over the course of the campaign.

Allen Hoolaeff believes the issue deserves to be front and centre during the election. He's a former foster parent of Alex Gervais, the teen who jumped from a window of the Abbotsford hotel he'd been living in while in government care.

Since Gervais's death in 2015, Hoolaeff has put forward several recommendations. He even addressed it with John Horgan at a town hall during the 2017 provincial election. 

Former foster father Allen Hoolaeff believes the issue of youth in government care deserves to be front and centre during this election. (CBC)

He believes the NDP has made progress on this issue over the past three years, but says the system still needs a lot of work.

"It needs to be more family focused," Hoolaeff replied when asked what his message is to the politicians currently on the campaign trail.

"We have to take more seriously the family issues and be more proactive, rather than have a reactive system — avoid problems from starting in the first place," he said, adding that should involve addressing poverty and improving counselling services.

Culture of inequity

Youth workers say this most recent case highlights how Indigenous youths continue to fall through the cracks of the system, despite a key recommendation from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission to protect Indigenous youth in care.

"It's pretty astounding to hear about the level of trauma experienced in foster care," said Jeska Slater, who has worked with Indigenous youth for years and is currently the Indigenous social innovation coordinator at Skookum Lab in Surrey.

Jeska Slater is the Indigenous social innovation coordinator at Skookum Lab, which works to develop new ways to address Indigenous child and youth poverty in Surrey. (CBC)

She points out many Indigenous children are apprehended due to issues of poverty, and once they go into care there is suddenly ample support available that wouldn't otherwise be provided.

"They get financial resources, respite, counselling, daycare — yet if we were to keep the children with their family, they wouldn't receive anywhere near that level of support," Slater said.

She told the story of one child who had a full blood brother living just blocks away for years, but they'd never met. She said there are countless cases where resources should be in place to help families stay together rather than fracture them.

No matter which party forms government on Oct. 24, Slater says there's still pervasive inequity in the system that needs to be addressed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Provincial Affairs Reporter covering the B.C. Legislature. Anything political: tanya.fletcher@cbc.ca

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