A number of recent news stories have painted what we would call an overly bleak picture of the provincial care system. On the one hand, this is entirely understandable. Very few stories are as emotionally charged as stories that revolve around vulnerable children. Every day, foster parents and the social workers who support youth in care are asked to make important decisions that impact the lives of some of our most vulnerable members of society. To do this so frequently on a day-to-day basis means there will inevitably be missteps along the way.
It’s important to remember the reasons why a provincial care system exists, and the endless complexities that come with providing such a service. It would be great if we could find a magic wand for children who, for no fault of their own, find themselves in provincial care. If we could devise a simple and 100% effective formula for success in all cases, we would most certainly have done so by now.
As a society, we like to think children who are born and who grow up in difficult environments will have every chance to be happy and successful. Unfortunately, for some youth, this path to happiness and success is littered with obstacles and roadblocks that make their journey to adulthood far more difficult than any of us would like. We frame our laws on the basis that every child has the right to live free from abuse and neglect. In order to respond to situations where severe abuse and neglect occur, we’ve developed a provincial care system. We also seek assurances that the abuse and neglect in these cases will not continue and that those responsible will be dealt with in a court of law.
Unfortunately, there are cases where youth continue to be abused or neglected in various ways after their entry into the care system. To say that such cases are common is an exaggeration, but to ignore them entirely or try to hide them is irresponsible. In this light, a number of our New Brunswick Youth In Care Network (NBYICN) members decided recently to lend their voices to related issues that concern them. As an organization that specializes in working with youth at risk, we wholly support them. Voices such as theirs are important because they come from lived experiences.
The unfortunate truth is that our society is not especially great at listening to our youth. More often than not, we dismiss them as being too inexperienced or idealistic. When they do show the courage to speak out, we take their message with a grain of salt. This is a problem. To do this so regularly creates a culture in which young people feel disrespected and undervalued. This needs to change. We need to listen.
Bernard Richard, former New Brunswick Child and Youth Advocate and a Board Member of Partners for Youth Inc., commends these young people for their efforts. “Because they have lived experience within the system, their voices resonate with passion and truth. They know what it’s like to feel that no one cares.” At the same time, Richard acknowledges that “recruiting and retaining suitable foster families remains a challenge in NB, as it is elsewhere. Most foster families, with the right support and resources, provide excellent care to children in difficult circumstances.”
Our NBYICN members are fond of saying: “There is no roadmap for growing up in care.” No two youth in care have faced the exact same situations. No two youth in care have been forced to adapt in the exact same way. Everyone involved, be they youth in care, foster parents, social workers, or any of countless others, they all do the best with the cards they’re dealt. Could we do better? Of course we could. In the end, the care system is built on need, and that need is constantly in flux. We work to make it the best we can, but there will always be more to do—always.
It’s also important to recognize the many new initiatives for youth at risk that are being developed already. Our organization strongly supports the Integrated Services Delivery model being piloted in sites around the province. We’re also very supportive of the push to establish a Centre of Excellence for youth with complex mental health needs, and of the new Youth Engagement Services initiative that seeks to provide more appropriate services and support to youth from 16 to 19 years old. All of these initiatives stand to have a profound impact on youth at risk, including many youth in care.
Will these programs give us the magic wand we would so love to have? No. The important part is that we continue to strive for something better. Finding faults in any social program is easy. Being part of the solution is difficult. It’s also worthwhile.
It’s important to note the ‘we’ here. The ‘we’ is all of us—our entire New Brunswick society. When we blame one segment of society—be it social workers, foster parents, teachers, or any other group—we are inevitably and always oversimplifying and basing ourselves on a limited perspective. It may be easier to lay blame this way, but laying blame in such oversimplified terms is a profoundly unproductive exercise.
So what can ‘we’ do about it?
If you truly want to do something to help youth in care, find out how you can get involved in the social programs that support them. Look into becoming a foster parent. Find out more about the hard work done by social workers in the field. Get involved with local organizations that provide activities for at risk youth. Ask a school if there’s any way you can help lend a hand to the teachers and administrators who work tirelessly each day to educate the coming generation.
Get more thoroughly informed, and then get involved. Doing so would not only benefit youth at risk, it would benefit all our communities and our society as a whole. You may just end up feeling good about it too.