Opinion

Reality check on teen suicide

Former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is serving her second five-year term as B.C.
Former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond is serving her second five-year term as B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth
— image credit: Contributed

VICTORIA – If you find Premier Christy Clark’s campaign against teen bullying to be superficial or even self-serving, I’ve got news for you. It’s potentially worse than that.

With the greatest respect to the family of Amanda Todd, her tragic case isn’t representative of teen suicide any more than it is typical of high-school bullying.

A clearer and more disturbing picture emerges from the latest report of B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. It’s a survey of 89 child protection cases from 2007 to 2010, where 15 kids killed themselves and the rest inflicted serious self-injury, in some cases repeatedly.

The word “bully” does not appear in the report. It speaks of domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, addiction, and runaways targeted by street predators. Three quarters of the kids were removed from their homes to protect them from their parents. More than half are aboriginal.

Its key conclusion is that shifting traumatized and mentally ill teens from institutional care to foster homes isn’t working. Earnest but inadequately trained foster parents and social workers can’t cope with kids who need diagnosis, treatment and supervision.

Without that, kids shuffled through foster homes an average of a dozen times in three years, with little attachment to home or school. Some were violent, no surprise given their formative years.

I asked Turpel-Lafond about the B.C. government’s recent focus on bullying. She said it’s worthwhile, and there are parallels between Amanda’s case and more common teen suicides. One is isolation at moments of crisis.

“Say you’re a middle-class parent with a child who hasn’t come out of their bedroom in six months, or you have a boy in foster care who’s in his 14th home,” she said. “They both want to kill themselves, so what do you do?”

Ideally, you intervene and get them to a child psychologist. Parents or guardians who can’t afford $150 an hour can wait months for the Ministry of Children and Family Development to arrange it. And in the meantime, our supposedly family-based foster care system sends them to school.

“I’m really worried about how [school-based anti-bullying programs] will affect the most vulnerable kids, because you start anonymously reporting someone as being a bully,” Turpel-Lafond said. “Yeah, we know they’re in the youth justice system. We know they’re troubled. By the way, they’ve been sexually and physically abused, jumped through 30 foster homes, and now we want to label them again?”

This is not to suggest that the existing B.C. effort isn’t substantial. The ministry reports that there are 2,221 front-line staff positions, of which 219 are currently vacant. It’s notoriously difficult to recruit, train and keep child protection workers, especially in remote communities.

Turpel-Lafond says her latest figures show the child and youth mental health service has 476 staff, with 21 vacancies and a government-wide hiring freeze. And many of those are doing double duty as community service managers.

Those managers don’t even have reliable data on case loads, she said. They just know they’re overwhelmed and many of the kids aren’t being reached.

This is not about political blame. I can trace this problem back to when Grace McCarthy was children’s minister, and the NDP did no better.

I’ve learned a bit about Riverview and Tranquille, asylums that were closed because of a modern belief that they were inhumane. At least they offered safety and medical care to even the most damaged people.

Right now our enlightened, progressive society can’t even help most of the kids we know are at high risk.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

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