Rick FitzZaland is the executive director of The Federation of Community Social Services of BC
Earlier this month, B.C. Children’s Representative Bernard Richard sent a letter to the Minister of Children and Family Development detailing his “grave concerns” about our province’s child-welfare system. The event that triggered this admonishment was the closing of yet another provincially contracted residential agency for kids in care of the government, owing to a substandard level of care.
In response, Minister Katrine Conroy ordered a review of more than 800 children living in contracted agency homes in B.C. We’ve been told the review will include a new approval process for placing any child or youth in a contracted, residential resource. The minister also said that no new contracted, residential agencies will be opened without the approval of a senior ministry official, and explained the ministry will be launching a recruitment campaign to attract foster caregivers.
I welcome those changes. But at this point, they amount to little more than a hasty coat of paint on a broken, neglected house. In British Columbia, we invest a pathetically small amount of money in young people living in the care of the government – we have for decades. News releases and media coverage may tell a different story, but the dollar amounts dedicated to caring for these children would shock most parents in this province.
These issues with the system are not new. They have existed – and been ignored – for a long, long time. Ms. Conroy says this problem is one that she will not allow to continue. But these children need more than promises.
They need the provincial government to stop paying for a cheap, piecemeal system of care and acting shocked and upset when things consistently go wrong. That’s not to say, however, that money alone can buy a better child-welfare system. My point is simply that this is what happens when the government keeps cutting line items for things such as supervision and behavioural supports over and over and over. The food budget for a child between the ages of 1 and 11 living in care in B.C. is only $134.00 a month. That’s less than $4.50 a day.
This isn’t an expensive, complicated system that’s unexpectedly breaking down. It’s a depressing, broken system being held together by a couple thousand caring and passionate social service workers across the province who refuse to give up on the kids they are caring for. The government knows very well what it’s paying for. Unlike other high-stakes industries, these youth workers and counsellors and therapists (and more) aren’t paid professional wages.
The contracts that fund these positions don’t include the training, or supervision, or professional development that benefit other professions. And the problems that we’re seeing – agency closures, inadequate care, frequent breakdowns of a child’s planned placement – are a direct result of those intentional omissions.
For too long, our government has ignored and underfunded this vital social service system. They have been able to do so because most people don’t hold the government to account for how these children are cared for. If we were talking about a bridge that failed because the government purchased cheap materials, there would be an uproar. The people of B.C. can see a bridge every day, when they drive over it on their way to work. But for the most part, people only see these vulnerable kids when it is too late –when the news covers another case of trust being violated, or another agency shut down or another young life cut short because they saw no way out.
These are kids who cannot – for many complex and heartbreaking reasons – live with their parents and families. And the problem is that most people don’t even really know that these kids exist. Which means that the previous government did not have to provide them with much more than promises and the status quo. That needs to stop. These kids have names and faces and hopes and dreams. They need you to notice them. They need you to speak up for them.
There’s no amount of money that can guarantee that every child living in government care will be happy and safe and loved. But there is an amount of money that pretty much ensures that they won’t be. It’s the amount we’re paying right now. And our kids are worth much, much more than that.