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British Columbia While most of us sleep, social workers are tackling real tragedy, in real time

When 18-year-old Alex Gervais died last year after falling from the window of the fourth-floor hotel room in which he was staying as a ward of the state, the outrage was loud and instantaneous. How in an advanced society like ours could we have kids staying in hotel rooms and not with a loving foster family that could more closely monitor the child's needs?

Of course, it is easy to cast noisy objections from the sidelines, to condemn what we perceive as insensitive and callous actions by a government. And generally what happens is we just as quickly forget about the issue and move on to something else. Rarely do we attempt to understand the often complex underlying factors that lead to some of the difficult decisions that social workers and others have to make in incredibly trying conditions.

This week, the provincial children's advocate, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, and Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Children and Family Development, released a report that delved deeper into the hotel-as-foster-home scenario. I would urge anyone who previously voiced their indignation over this matter to give it a read.

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Here is the unvarnished truth: While we pretend to be appalled and disgusted by what we see happening in the realm of child welfare – most often from the warm comfort of our living rooms – there is a world out there that we do not know or cannot begin to imagine. And that is the world in which brave social workers operate. That is the world in which decisions have to be made at 1 o'clock in the morning about what to do with a five-year-old who has to be removed from a volatile and abusive domestic situation.

While most of us are sleeping, ugliness and heartbreak and tragedy are taking place in areas of the province that we want no part of – except when it comes to criticizing some of the decisions that are being made to deal with these situations.

The ideal that a hotel room should never be a temporary replacement for a foster home is just that: an ideal. But the on-the-ground fact is that, often, no foster homes are available in the middle of the night when a child needs comfort and shelter. Frequently, the child who is apprehended cannot be placed with other children and youth in a foster setting because of age and gender differences. Or it may be because the child has mental-health needs that make it impossible to locate an existing, government-approved caregiver with the appropriate skills and capacity.

One ministry staff person quoted in the report attributed the increase in hotel use to the fact that, over the past few years, the children and youth coming into care have increasingly multifaceted needs, and the ability to find a suitable placement for them takes time. One example cited in the report concerned a 14-year-old boy who came into care because his parent was unable to deal with his intense behavioural issues. His behaviour was also beyond the capacity of his foster parents to handle. A search for an alternative placement revealed that the other foster homes in the area also lacked the specialized skills to cope with a teenager with such complex, and potentially dangerous, behavioural problems.

So what should the ministry do in that case? Let him roam the streets? Put him in a juvenile detention centre? Maybe, just maybe, a hotel is not a bad alternative in the circumstances, where he is supervised by child-protection workers until a more permanent place can be found.

But none of this is easy. There are not thousands and thousands of people willing to open up their homes to take care of teenagers like that, or young children with compound needs because of health complications that began in the womb.

This is not to say that the Ministry of Children and Family Development should take the position that it can do nothing and allow hotel stays to proliferate. Of course not. Where funding shortfalls are responsible for gaps in the system, they should be closed. (For example, money for more emergency beds would be helpful.) And the ministry needs to do a far better job of tracking the number of kids actually staying in hotels.

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When asked this week if she could guarantee that no more children in care would be housed temporarily in hotels, Ms. Cadieux answered: "I don't think that would be reasonable."

And she is right. As long as we live in the imperfect world that we do, there will be a need for temporary solutions to deal with some of society's more intractable problems.

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