Monday, June 04, 2007

Tomorrow's disasters visible in report on kids in care
June 1, 2007

I spoke to a Grade 10 class about homelessness a few months back, and was profoundly discouraged to realize that to them, the problems in Victoria’s downtown were just the way it was.
They’d never known any different. The sleeping bags, the shopping carts, the drugs and the craziness - these kids had no way of knowing that just 10 years ago, most of that didn’t even exist.
On the one hand, the problems all seem so new. But as a report released this week makes clear, creating homelessness is in fact a slow, sad process.
Where did the trouble come from? People ask me that a lot. I then recite a long list of best guesses, starting with the drastic cuts to Canadian mental-health support that started in the early 1980s and carrying right on through two decades of missteps and flawed thinking.
We’ve now reached a point where we not only provide less help to people who need it, but also create the conditions that lead to more people needing help.
Few documents provide more heartwrenching proof of that than this week’s release from Child and Youth Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-LaFond.
Written with provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall, the report examined how B.C.’s kids in care are faring in school. Its grim findings answer a lot of questions about the roots of our growing social problems.
The study looked at 32,186 B.C. youngsters who had been in government care between 1997 and 2005. They were compared to 1.5 million other B.C. kids, to see what differences came up in terms of their education.
The differences are massive.
For starters, the high school dropout rate among kids in care is 79 per cent, versus 22 per cent for other students.
What do we know about a lack of education? Among other things, that it correlates with poorer health, lower income, more family problems and the likelihood of jail time.
People who drop out of high school are five times as likely as graduates to end up on income assistance, notes the study. They’re twice as likely to go to jail. Their physical health is poorer.
In other words, a high-school education goes a long way to predicting how the rest of your life turns out.
But the story gets worse for B.C.’s children in care. More than half of those in the study were designated “special needs,” compared to a scant 8.4 per cent of the other students. By age 16, fully three-quarters of boys in care were considered to have special needs.
Most of those special needs related to behaviour problems and mental illness. That was sharply different than other children in the study, who were most likely to be designated as having “special needs” because they were gifted.
The study found a disturbing pattern: Children in care came to kindergarten less prepared to learn, started falling behind the other students almost immediately, and continued stumbling until they finally dropped out.
True, children who need to be taken away from their families can be presumed to already have the deck stacked against them.
Indeed, even in kindergarten, these children were three times as likely as their peers to have poor physical health, language and cognitive barriers, and less social competence.
But the really sad story revealed by the report is that they stayed that way. They arrived at school already struggling, and never really caught up.
Many of those kids will nonetheless live out their lives in honest and hard-working fashion, because what happens in high school doesn’t tell the full story of a person’s life.
But no doubt some of those children from the early period of the study have already drifted to the streets by now. Bad things can happen to anyone, it’s true, but they’re way more likely to happen to a poor kid who starts out life disadvantaged and never does get his feet underneath him.
That must have always been so, of course. I have no definitive answers for why the disadvantages of today seem to have a far greater impact on a person’s life than seemed the case 50 years ago - when the dropout rates were far higher and social supports even less.
But whatever the reasons, things are different now. Proof of that is all around us. The way it used to be is no longer the way it is, nor will change happen just by wishing for it.
On the streets, we’ll begin the transformation when we recognize the problems for what they are and start building housing, more comprehensive supports and a disease-management plan for addiction.
But the future is in our schools. The problems of tomorrow will be avoided in large part by meeting kids’ needs today. We’ve just been given a sobering reminder of how far we still have to go.