Child watchdog worried about lack of support for B.C. foster kids
Jennifer Charlesworth says death of Abbotsford teen Alex Gervais led to change, but more reforms are needed
The 2017 report into the death of teenager Alex Gervais is filled with accounts of abuse, neglect and sorrow, and tragically, his story is far from unique.
B.C.'s representative for children and youth has released several reports into the deaths of young people who were failed by the province, recommending ways to ensure their cases are never repeated.
By the time Jennifer Charlesworth took over from Bernard Richard as B.C.'s child watchdog in 2018, there were so many heartbreaking reports that it was hard to keep track of all the recommendations.
"There are definitely some themes that we see over and over again," she said. "It feels like a broken record sometimes."
For reports that are more than two years old, Charlesworth now lumps the core concerns into what are known as legacy recommendations, which range from Indigenous child welfare to human resources and staffing to sexualized violence.
She monitors the government's progress and posts it on her office's website.
Charlesworth says the Ministry of Children and Family Development has made many improvements since the Gervais report was released, but too many foster kids still fall through the cracks.
The Gervais report Broken Promises, which was released three years ago this month, explains how Gervais, 18, took his own life by jumping from his hotel room window.
He endured abuse as a child, but instead of placing him with his aunt or stepmother, the Ministry of Children and Family Development shuffled him through 17 different placements and 23 social workers. No attempt was made to reconnect him with his Métis roots.
In 2015, the province put Gervais in an Abbotsford hotel and paid a caregiver $8,000 a month to look after him, but the caregiver didn't visit once in the 10 days before Gervais' death.
"It is hoped that this report and its recommendations will help prevent other children and youth from experiencing a similar fate," Richard wrote in Broken Promises.
"Alex lived a life that none of us would wish on our own children or any child,"
The report highlights the need for more support for children in care who can't return to their birth families. It also calls for more resources for social workers so they can find appropriate placements and address the mental health needs of youth.
The B.C. government says it has hired more social workers and other staff and is consulting with First Nations to reduce the disproportionately high rate of Indigenous children in foster care.
Charlesworth says despite the hiring blitz, many social workers are still overwhelmed by their case loads and many children in care still don't get connected with the support they need.
Fixing the system
The MCFD says that by offering resources like parenting classes, mental health and addictions support, 91 percent of children placed in the care of the government now safely return to their families.
Still, Charlesworth says B.C.'s foster care system needs to do a better job of providing foster children with care plans, especially teenagers who aren't prepared to lose their provincial support when they age out of the system.
"I still am worried that we don't have a robust array of services that meet the mental health and developmental needs of children like Alex," she said.
"I think the ministry has made some progress but there's a lot more that needs to be done."
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