In the meantime, he isn’t taking his medications and hasn’t had a proper psychiatric evaluation since he was diagnosed at 10 with ADHD, anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s and permanent brain damage.
At just four years old, he was hearing voices and telling his mother that aliens were abducting him at night. At nine, he was admitted to the psychiatric unit at B.C. Children’s Hospital because he was suicidal and obsessed with violence.
Now 17, A. is a prisoner at the Burnaby Youth Detention Centre. He led a riot at the jail last summer. As a young offender, A. can’t be named, but he’s been in government care for about eight years, ever since his threats against his younger brother and violence to the family pets got to be too much for his mom and stepdad to handle.
A. will be 18 when he’s released from jail in May, and will have just nine months in an independent living arrangement before he ages out of care. What happens then is a source of constant distress for his family.
“He’s a danger to himself, he’s a danger to society and it’s because he’s only ever fallen through the cracks. No one has ever taken the time to honestly try to help him. Nobody except for his mom,” family friend Kathy Carpenter said.
Since making the heart-wrenching decision to give up her son, mom N. has been a constant and vocal advocate for the teen, making countless calls, writing endless emails and attending meeting after meeting with the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
She’s heard the recent stories of teens who’ve died after aging out of care, and says her son was friends with one of them, 18-year-old Alex Gervais.
A. is set to age out without graduating from high school or learning key life skills, so N. worries that his prospects are similarly bleak.
“How’s he going to function? He doesn’t know how to cook, he doesn’t know how to properly do laundry. They never taught him this stuff. They never made him go to school,” said N. “If he gets out and does one more crime, he’s an adult. Then what?”
The fate of kids like A. is the subject of an ongoing investigation by B.C.’s new representative for children and youth, Bernard Richard. A. spent some time living at a group home operated by A Community Vision, the company whose contracts with the province were cancelled after an investigation identified caregivers with outstanding criminal charges and violent histories.
Richard’s office has been tracking the paths of kids who were in the care of the company ever since Gervais fell to his death from an Abbotsford hotel window in 2015 after his ACV group home was closed.
“Part of his situation was caused by fairly significant changes in the quality of care that he received during his time at ACV,” Richard said. “It’s raised issues for us regarding the quality of some of the residential placements. ”
Because of A.’s young offender status, Richard couldn’t comment directly on his case, but he said that many of the teens in his situation have had “quite traumatic” experiences while in care. And Gervais isn’t the only one to come to a tragic end — another former ACV ward died of an apparent overdose in a tent in Surrey in November, months after she aged out of government care.
At her Metro Vancouver home, N. keeps stacks of papers documenting family case planning conferences with the ministry. In each one, there are small signs of progress — A. bonding with a caregiver or expressing an interest in returning to school — but by the next meeting, those small gains are washed away.
“It’s the same thing, over and over and over, and nothing’s ever come out of it,” N. said.
She understands the system better than she’d like to. She grew up in government care, too — her parents were heroin addicts — but she worked hard to give her three sons the home she didn’t have.
A. has cycled through about 10 foster and group homes over the years, usually getting kicked out for destructive and sometimes frightening behaviour. In the meantime, he isn’t taking his medications and hasn’t had a proper psychiatric evaluation since he was diagnosed at 10 with ADHD, anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, Tourette’s and permanent brain damage. He’s disappeared for weeks at a time, N. says, and racked up charges for assault, auto theft, possession of stolen property and robbery.
In a 2015 recording of a meeting with A.’s care team, N. challenges his social workers and the caregivers at his group home about the marijuana she saw littering her son’s room on her last visit. She says she noticed a bong, as well as pot on his bed and dresser.
“It’s a curiosity of mine. The ministry can go into somebody’s house and take their kid because their parents smoke a bit of pot or drink beers or whatever. But here you have a ministry house that allows a child to be in there with numerous amounts of drugs in his room,” N. says.
She goes on: “I’ll tell you, when I was in care and I had pot, it was taken away.”
The answer she receives is that caregivers aren’t allowed to enter a child’s room without ministry approval, and besides, A. has lashed out in the past when he’s asked to clean up the room.
“He’s so confrontational I think they just stopped trying,” a staff member at the group home says.
Though N. aches to let him come home if she could get government permission, she doesn’t feel it’s safe while his little brother still lives there. He’s robbed the family before, and the last time they moved they decided not to give him their new address.
Kathy Carpenter spent about a year as N.’s one-to-one worker in the 90s, and has remained her ally as she passed into adulthood. None of what’s happened with A. should be a reflection on his mom’s parenting, Carpenter argues.
“She’s a really good mom,” Carpenter said. “She was a strict mom, there was no fooling around, and she monitored their computer time.”
And N.’s two other sons appear to be thriving. The eldest was a star athlete in high school and graduated this year. The youngest can be a bit mischievous, but he’s never been in serious trouble.
The choice to allow A. to go into government care was a wrenching one for N. and her husband, according to Carpenter.
“She was miserable — she felt she’d failed as a parent. It was really a terrible decision that she had to make, but I encouraged her to make it,” Carpenter.
But she had hoped that being in care would give A. access to trained professionals who would see the urgency of his psychiatric issues and get him the treatment he needed. Consistent caregivers, discipline, and medication should have been priorities, she argues.
According to children’s representative Richard, care for kids with mental health issues is lacking across the country — not just in B.C. Mental illness generally isn’t treated with the same urgency as physical illness, and children’s mental illness gets even less attention, he says.
Richard also believes that youth detention centres need to have a stronger focus on rehabilitation.
“By not providing services and investing in those kinds of services, it’s really a false economy, because we’ll end up paying more later on as a result of the way they will behave once they’re back out in society,” he said.
But he added that B.C. does a much better job than most provinces at keeping kids out of jail by using other methods of rehabilitation like restorative justice.
According to the children’s ministry, B.C.’s youth custody rate has dropped by more than three-quarters in the last 20 years. At the end of December, just 37 kids were in custody. However, about 35 per cent of those are teens like Gervais who are in government care.
“British Columbia is widely recognized as having one of the most progressive and effective systems of youth justice services in the country,” a ministry spokesperson said in an email.
The spokesperson went on to say that government-contracted group homes have “various approaches to mental health and behavioural issues training.” That may range from in-house training to university degrees in child and youth care. The ministry is also working on developing new training for foster caregivers in dealing with a range of issues including mental health, substance use and behaviour problems.