Life, interrupted: How B.C. youth are fighting for stability in a broken child welfare system
Alex Gervais moved 17 times and had 23 caregivers and social workers before he died. How common is his experience? We spoke with youth, social workers and Métis leaders about “permanency” — and why it’s critical for B.C.’s most vulnerable kids.
Alex Gervais was someone who moved. Sometimes, he chose to move — those who knew him well say he spent countless afternoons flying around the bike park on his BMX bike at the recreation centre in Abbotsford, B.C. Other times, he was moved.
As one of 7,000 or so kids who are under the care of the B.C. government at any given moment, Alex was shuffled between foster homes, temporary stays with family, special group homes for high-needs children and, occasionally, hotels. In September 2015, he jumped to his death from the fourth-storey window of his Super 8 hotel room in Abbotsford.
Alex’s story was all over the media. How did a kid under government care die alone at a hotel? Where did the system go wrong? More than a year later, in February 2017, we got some answers. Bernard Richard, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth (RCY), published Broken Promises, Alex’s Story. In the 71-page report, he writes that Alex’s journey through the child welfare system was “marked by constant instability, repeated missed opportunities for permanency, and trauma.”
Richard also calls attention to three disturbing numbers: 17, 23 and 26.
To get what these numbers really mean, start from the parking lot of the little Super 8 on Sumas Way where Alex died, and move backwards through time. You’ll flow through 17 homes and many different schools. You’ll meet a lot of police. You’ll be cared for — at least in theory — by 23 different social workers and caregivers and at least 26 respite, or part-time, caregivers. You will move so much.
- 23. 26. This story is about trying to understand what these numbers mean to those who are living them.
I asked youth in and from care, social workers, teachers, Indigenous leaders and the RCY to help us connect the dots between Alex’s story and the bigger picture. Their stories illuminate the broken parts of a system that itself is badly in need of care. They tell me what permanency means for them in their lives and their work, and what we can do to ensure B.C.’s most vulnerable youth are riding more bikes and packing fewer suitcases.
A sense of permanency — of stability, connectedness and belonging — is important for kids in care. We know that because they tell us that. We know it because researchers and frontline workers say there’s a need for it. And we know it because the Ministry of Children and Family Development, which is responsible for taking care of B.C.’s most vulnerable kids, tracks “permanency” and “placement stability” as key indicators of its overall performance.
“I really think there’s no really good reason why it should happen,” Bernard Richard, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, tells me. “If the minister is the parent, then I would expect the minister to act as a prudent, loving, caring parent would act. And that means stability, permanency; it certainly doesn’t mean moving a child around 17 times in 11 years.”
If the road to permanency is paved with placements, it’s also paved with good intentions. After listening to so many people with connections to B.C.’s child welfare system, I’ve learned that people are deeply invested in fixing it. And they’re trying — especially those who have been down this road themselves: Chris Tait, Cheylene Moon, Katarina Klinaftakis, Jaymie Clench — and so many more youth from care. They’re speaking up and challenging the rest of us to listen and to act. There’s too many potholes in this road for one minister or one policy to fix. This story is for Alex, but it’s about all of us.
Photos and video for this story were edited by Anya Zoledziowski. The photo featured at the top, taken by Brielle Morgan, is of part of a mural painted by Coast Salish artist Carman McKay on the walls of Robert Bateman Secondary.