Sunday, October 01, 2006

Children in government care
Sept. 29, 2006

Everything you need to know about what’s going wrong in B.C. communities these days is summed up in the depressing little report released last week on the health status of children in permanent government care. If you’ve ever wondered where lost souls come from, look no farther.
Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley and provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall studied health outcomes for children in permanent care between April 1997 and November 2005. Some 37,000 kids were taken into care in that period, with 24,800 eventually making their way out of the system. The report focuses on the 12,200 who didn’t.
Not unexpectedly, the study found that kids raised solely by the government fare far worse than other kids, sometimes in ways that underlined for me the essence of family. Having a series of people being paid to care for you just isn’t the same as being raised by your family, a truth the study reveals in telling ways.
For instance, kids in the permanent custody of government are prescribed drugs like Ritalin up to 12 times more often than other children, and psychiatric drugs up to eight times more often. It could mean that they’ve got a lot more problems than the average kid, but could just as easily be about what happens to a child when there’s nobody in his life who really knows him.
If it were your six-year-old acting up, you’d have six years of history with him to reflect back on in trying to determine whether little Nathan had an attention-deficit problem or was just a wired, on-the-go kind of kid. You’d be in a far better position to make an informed decision as to what to do about the boy.
But a child in permanent care can end up passed from foster home to foster home, each only seeing whatever version of the child is presenting at that time. With no family history to look back on to determine that indeed, all of Nathan’s family members tended to be a little crazy at age six - but just fine by 10 - you’d be more likely to conclude that a troubling behaviour was an indicator that something was wrong.
Of course, the chances that something really is wrong with Nathan are significantly higher if he’s a child in permanent care. Such kids in the study were four times more likely than other children to be struggling right from birth. And it was an uphill slog for them after that, through a childhood rife with accident and injury, an adolescence more likely to go off the rails, and an unsettled and difficult early adulthood.
But that’s no excuse for why kids in care are doing so poorly. The whole point of government care ought to be to help our province’s most disadvantaged young citizens grow up into responsible, healthy adults. If that’s not happening, then the onus is on us to figure that out.
Alarming health outcomes for children in care is not news in B.C. The Kendall-Morley report merely brings home how little progress we’ve made after well over a decade of hand-wringing and political promises. Is it really 11 years since the stark findings of Judge Tom Gove ever so briefly galvanized us to do better?
Care for kids who are falling behind from the start has to be better than growing up in an average family, not significantly worse. Instead, almost every bad thing that can happen to a child happened at a far higher rate to children in care.
More drugs. More sickness. Longer stays in hospital. Fewer happy endings.
Children in continuing care were four times more likely to get pregnant as teenagers. Four times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental-health condition: attention deficit; “conduct disorder”; depression; anxiety. Twelve times more at risk of being in a car accident. Eight times more likely to be on psychiatric drugs, and up to 12 times more likely to end up on a whole host of other prescription drugs, from asthma sprays to antacids.
Did all that medical attention make them healthier? You be the judge. Kids in care died of infections during the study period at seven times the rate of other children. They were almost seven times more likely to die of “unknown causes,” and more than 11 times more at risk of dying of diseases of the nervous system. Those who made it into adulthood continued to struggle with higher accident and injury rates, more mental-health problems, and more suicide attempts.
The only conclusion to draw from the study is that we failed more than 12,000 kids during that nine-year period - kids whose lives we had the chance to turn around. Sadder still is that we’re still doing it.

No comments: