There is no other way to view the circumstances around the death of Alex Gervais except with profound sadness and heartbreak.
His loss by suicide at the age of 18 ended a life that was difficult from the start. Born of two troubled parents with mental-health issues, Alex would struggle with anxiety and depression himself. Born into dysfunction and misery, he would be taken from his home at age 10 and become a ward of the state, with everything that entails – a never-ending sense of abandonment, frustrating interactions with overburdened social workers, foster parents ill-equipped to deal with complex emotional needs and dealings with an array of unqualified caregivers.
This week, Bernard Richard, British Columbia's Representative for Children and Youth, released his report into Mr. Gervais's life and death. Two years ago, the aboriginal teen jumped from a fourth-storey window of a budget hotel, where he was staying in suburban Vancouver while in government care. The investigation chronicled a lifetime of indifference and neglect; Alex lived in 17 foster-care settings and was placed under the guidance of 23 different social workers. No one, it seems, had a vested interest in his long-term well-being.
Reports such as these have become all too common in British Columbia. Over the past decade alone, there have been countless accounts of how the province's child-welfare system failed to safeguard the life of some innocents who would never know the protections, rights and privileges every child in this country deserves.
These postmortems incite what is now an almost ritualistic response. First comes the outrage that greets the initial findings. Then, the provincial Opposition leader calls for the head of the minister in charge – "How many children must die on your watch before …." The minister then promises to follow through on all of the ombudsman's many recommendations. A few days later, the story is forgotten. All goes quiet until the next tragedy occurs. Rinse and repeat.
Now, before those of you living elsewhere get too smug, know that it's not all that different in the rest of the country. Recently in Alberta, for instance, we learned the horrid details of the short, brutal life of the four-year-old aboriginal child named Serenity; starved, allegedly beaten and possibly sexually assaulted while the adults who cared for her were supposedly being monitored by the province's child-welfare system. It led to a firestorm of recriminations in the legislature. Every province has one of these stories.
That said, British Columbia's child-welfare system seems unique in this regard. In a word, it is a mess. That is the only conclusion one can draw from the endless churn of inquiries chronicling the woefully inadequate protocols in place to look after some of society's most vulnerable people. Mr. Richard's predecessor, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, reported many times on the complete lack of accountability existing in various facets of the system. The case of Alex Gervais is yet another infuriating example of that.
In his mid-to-late teens, Alex began exhibiting signs of acute mental distress, including suicidal thoughts and tendencies. At a time when he needed professional help the most, he was instead placed in the care of people whose résumés included stints as bouncers and truck drivers – people who saw the young Métis boy as nothing more than a paycheque.
The last person put in charge of him was being paid $8,000 a month by the province. So desperate was the government to find someone to mind a teen dealing with drug and anger-management issues, it agreed to pay the person several times the going rate. Still, this caregiver was often nowhere to be found, allegedly spending money that was meant to buy food and clothes for a charge he often only kept in touch with via text message.
These are the type of people the B.C. government has come to rely on to look after some of our most troubled kids. There is an entire ecosystem of them – unskilled, untrained, independent employees (some with criminal pasts), who come a lot cheaper than union-waged social workers but are not nearly equipped to deal with the burdens of those in their care.
In child welfare, as in life, you get what you pay for. But the ultimate price can be a horrific one – Alex Gervais is testament to that.