Tales of success temper heartbreaking hearings into Quebec's youth protection services

Nicolas Zorn credits his time in group homes with helping turn his life around. Others at this week's hearings into the province's youth protection system have told a different story.

Nicolas Zorn credits his time in the system with giving him strength to succeed. Others tell a different story

Nicolas Zorn told his story of growing up in the system Thursday at the provincial commission of inquiry into Quebec's youth protection services. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

At the end of a week documenting the problems in Quebec's youth protection system, Nicolas Zorn took to the microphone with a more positive message: the system can make a difference.

"We don't know how much this system, in many cases, works," Zorn said after testifying before the commission aimed at improving the province's Direction de la protection de la jeunesse (DPJ).

"Stories like mine, and like the ones of so many others, aren't known."

Zorn, 33, spent much of his childhood under the province's care. 

After the death of his father when he was eight, his fits of anger grew difficult to manage. He lashed out at his mother.

He was in and out of group homes from the age of 11 until he turned 18. He struggled with drug abuse and crime.

He credits the youth protection system and the devoted staff who cared for him with helping him find his way.
Nicolas Zorn's book, J'ai profité du système. (Éditions Somme Toute)

Now a doctoral student in economics at Université de Montréal, Zorn founded the Observatoire québécois des inégalités, a non-profit group aimed at improving the province's social services.

He's written a book about his story called J'ai profité du système – Des centres jeunesse à l'université: parcours d'un enfant du modèle québécois (I benefited from the system – From youth centres to university: A child's journey through the Quebec system). 

Zorn's testimony was welcomed by commissioners on Thursday, after hearing such heartbreaking testimony earlier in the week.

The inquiry was called in response to public outcry over the death of a seven-year-old girl in Granby last year.

She was found in critical condition in her father's home and died in hospital a day later.

The girl had been monitored by the DPJ but nevertheless fell through the cracks.

In the aftermath, experts and union representatives sounded the alarm about a system in crisis across the province, including at the English-language Batshaw Youth and Family Centres, with insufficient resources and staff suffering from burnout.

After ordering the inquiry this past summer, the Quebec government announced it would invest $47 million to hire 400 new social workers and reduce wait lists for evaluation. 

Barrette's reforms seen as a mistake

Dressed in a trim suit and a white button-down shirt, Zorn made a persuasive case for how youth protection can help improve a child's life.

He cautioned, though, that there is much room for improvement in the way it is run. He said there needs to be more research, following people who have long since left the system, to properly measure if it's working.

"There are successes. We need to know why there are successes. And there are failures. And we need to know why those weren't successes," he said.

Like others at the inquiry, Zorn said former health minister Gaétan Barrette's merger of health and social services into administrative super-clusters known by their French acronym, CIUSSS, has made it more difficult to track children in need and provide them and their families with adequate support.

"There's one thing I think that could, should and will probably change, is to adapt what we already have to the people who need it," he said. 

Régine Laurent, left, is the president of the inquiry into Quebec's youth protection services. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Jennifer Dupuis, the president of the non-profit C.A.R.E Jeunesse, had a similar message for the commission a day earlier.

She, too, said that Barrette's reforms were a mistake — and additional funding and resources are still needed.

"We have seen the quality of services decline at the time of this merger," she said.

Also on Wednesday, Marjorie Villefranche, head of a centre for Montreal's Haitian community, La Maison d'Haïti, raised another issue: black children are "over-represented in the system," she said, and they're more likely than their white counterparts to be removed from their families.

"I do not think that Haitian parents are meaner than other parents," said Villefranche.

Care beyond 18

Gabriel Darquenne, 27, recounted how he had been shuttled from group home to group home through his teen years.

Gabriel Darquenne is now studying to be a lawyer but spent his teen years shuttling in and out of group homes. He said when he turned 18, he could have used more support. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

His anger grew after his parents divorced when he was eight.

But he didn't see a psychologist, he said, until he was an adult and out of the system.

"I hope kids will get the resources they need because, in my time, it was not done," he said.

Darquenne said he would have benefited from assistance after turning 18 — a complaint that came up repeatedly throughout the first week of testimony.

He said when he aged out of the system, he wasn't ready for the world. Fortunately, he said, "I had people in the right place at the right time."

Darquenne is nearly finished law school at the University of Ottawa. He plans to work with at-risk youth and children in youth services.

The inquiry, which has wrapped up in Montreal, will hold hearings elsewhere in the province until Dec. 5. A final report is due in November 2020.


Benjamin Shingler is a reporter with CBC's investigative unit in Montreal. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Email story ideas to