COLUMN: Spend money helping kids before it’s too late

The latest report from Children and Youth Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is aptly titled “Trauma, Turmoil and Tragedy.”

It’s a sad review of the lives of 89 children who harmed themselves or committed suicide, and the supports they received from the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

It’s important to learn from these cases.

But wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in keeping children from ending up in such desperate situations. In providing community supports to help parents cope with their problems, so they could in turn raise their children successfully? And in addressing problems before they spiral out of control?

That’s what we do in the community social services sector.

Turpel-Lafond’s report looks at the backgrounds of the 89 children. She found — not surprisingly — that family dysfunction and poverty were at the root of their troubled lives.

Half of the 89 children were exposed to domestic violence at an early age. “Domestic violence can leave a child with emotional pain, deep stress and sometimes physical trauma,” Turpel-Lafond notes. The resulting lack of trust means children don’t talk about their own problems or learn the skills to solve them.

About 75% of the children were born to mothers with substance abuse problems. The information on fathers is scarcer because so many simply weren’t around. And 27% of the parents had themselves been children in the ministry’s care, suggesting a failure to provide the support they needed to grow into healthy adults ready to raise their own children.

The ministry’s work is important and difficult, and the representative’s oversight is vital.

But this report — like so many others — should force us to look at how we can help children and their families before problems are so serious that children must be taken into an imperfect, costly system of government care.

That’s our role in the community social services sector. Sometimes, the intervention can be straightforward: counselling for addiction issues, workshops on parenting skills, help with a job search or relationship problems. Sometimes, the support needs to be more extensive, over a longer term. We work with parents, prospective parents, young people and children facing difficulties.

It’s challenging. Our agencies — non-profit, private, Aboriginal, large, small — work across the province, with people who need a little, or a lot, of help to make the best of their lives. Some 64,000 people work in the sector, supported by thousands of volunteers.

And it has become increasingly more challenging because our work isn’t adequately supported. Funding has been frozen or cut as demand has increased. Our hard-won expertise and innovative approaches, which could help government be more effective in addressing community problems, haven’t really been tapped.

All governments face pressures to deal with each emerging crisis. But the representative’s report is a sharp reminder that we need to focus much more on prevention rather than on fixing damage once it is done.

It is important that the best services and supports are available for children and youth as they face huge challenges. It is equally — or more — important that we fund and support the community-based programs that strengthen families and keep children from needing those kinds of drastic interventions.

Michelle Fortin is the Executive Director of Watari Youth, Family and Community Services and the Chair of BC Addiction Specialists and Allied Professionals, and is writing on behalf of the Roundtable of Provincial Social Services Organizations.


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