British Columbia

Child watchdog worried about lack of support for B.C. foster kids

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.

Jennifer Charlesworth says death of Abbotsford teen Alex Gervais led to change, but more reforms are needed

Alex Gervais enjoys time at the lake with his aunt when he was a child. The ministry never attempted to place Gervais with his aunt or his stepmother. (Line Decarie)

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.

Metis teen Alex Gervais died after he jumped from the open window of a hotel in Abbotsford while in xyolhemeylh's care. (Dylan Pelley/Facebook)

Broken promises

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.

Jennifer Charlesworth speaks with reporters in November 2018 about a report that states youth use substances to numb the emotional pain caused by trauma in their lives. (Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

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."

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

 

About the Author

Jesse Johnston worked in private radio from 2004 to 2014 in Vancouver, Red Deer and Calgary. He spent the next five years based out of Surrey (his hometown) as CBC's South of the Fraser reporter until he joined the Impact Team in 2019. Jesse is a two-time recipient of the RTDNA Dave Rogers Award for Best Short Radio Feature. He loves radio, running and dogs. He also loves the Detroit Lions, but if you follow him on Twitter, you already knew that. @Jesse_Johnston

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