Last month, I snapped.
Like so many people, I was outraged to learn that the parents of more than 500 children separated from their families at the US border in 2017 and 2018 could not be found. That’s more than 500 families torn apart by cruel, “zero tolerance” government policies. I couldn’t stop thinking: who’s comforting these children? Who’s in charge of reuniting these families? What’s being done?
As a Canadian living in the U.S., I can be pretty smug. On a regular basis I think ‘well, at least my Prime Minister didn’t do that’, and then I go about my day, satisfied that my birth country and its leader are firmly atop the moral high ground. But the sad truth is, when it comes to protecting vulnerable kids, Canada isn’t doing much better than its southern neighbour.
Having adopted both my daughters from foster care in Canada, I’ve seen the mechanics of our country’s child welfare system up close; and although my girls’ experiences were almost entirely positive, most kids aren’t so lucky.
So, when I heard about what was happening in the U.S., on the eve of National Adoption Awareness Month in both countries, I snapped and decided to take the extremely radical step of …. writing letters. Postcards, to be exact. In less than an hour I’d fired off my first six postcards to Justin Trudeau, begging him to get involved. And I’ll keep writing until I get some kind of response, from someone. I know the odds of this are low, and I am not holding my breath. But I am also extremely motivated, fed up, and not going away.
On average, foster children spend 10 years in care. They often live in multiple homes without ever knowing true parental love, consistency, stability and permanency. They’re often forced to move to a new home and school with no notice and no opportunity to say goodbye to anyone who matters to them. And many of them move with their belongings in garbage bags. My daughter did, and nothing says ‘we don’t care about you,’ and ‘you’re disposable’ quite like this.
Politicians are taking advantage of the fact that not enough of us care about these kids. It’s not just unacceptable, but reprehensible, that leaders on both sides of the border think it’s okay to treat children this way, especially marginalized, severely at-risk kids who need help, love and advocacy. Not all foster homes are bad, but most of them aren’t permanent, and permanency is what kids need to feel safe and secure, and to heal.
There is no national tracking system for foster kids in Canada. Child welfare is managed provincially, and every province has a different system. It’s patchwork. Therefore, we don’t know exactly how many kids are in care, but some estimates put the number as high as 78,000, including around 40,000 crown wards in need of a permanent home.
Our child protection system isn’t set up to manage the current situation. Children’s Aid agencies focus their resources on crises and emergencies, with good reason. The children in immediate danger get first priority. But once a child is removed from a bad situation and placed in foster care, our current system is not designed to do much besides let him languish there. For years. There simply isn’t enough money, time, or human resources to actively search for a permanent, loving home once he becomes a ward of the crown. He’s in indefinite limbo and can spend his childhood wondering if anyone cares enough to adopt him.
The stigma surrounding foster care discourages adoptions and permanency. Foster kids are considered “damaged goods.” Many are blamed for being in care in the first place, and for the behavioural issues that can arise from the hardships they and/or their birth parent(s) experienced, like substance abuse, mental health issues, physical or sexual abuse, poverty and systemic racism. Add in feelings of being damaged, unwanted and alone, and their behaviour makes perfect sense. But “damaged goods” means very few of us will challenge the government when it turns its back on these kids.
The consequences. Typical outcomes for youth who age out of care at age 18 or 21 include low academic achievement, lack of stable employment, lack of housing security or homelessness, criminal justice system involvement, early parenthood, poor physical and mental health, and loneliness. Children who’ve been in extended government care are four times as likely to attempt suicide. So, where does it end? Doesn’t it make sense to do everything we can to stop this cycle? This is not the children’s fault. The adults in charge of the system must do better.
Therefore, I’ve decided not to keep quiet anymore. I have to stand up for these kids and find out why not enough is being done to help them find permanent, loving homes because every time I picture a child going to bed without a goodnight kiss, or waking up without Christmas presents, birthday cake, hugs, support and affirmation, I know it has to stop.
And listen, I know what happens when suburban moms like me get political. Because we don’t operate in the world of business and politics, we have little credibility and a perceived lack of understanding around complex issues. People think we have too much time on our hands, that we should probably get a job. But hell hath no fury like a mother whose children are being threatened. And make no mistake, these are our children; they’re everyone’s children. And if we don’t help them, who will?
Follow my postcard writing journey on Instagram at @postcardsforthePM.