A girl I know is going traveling this summer. Not to any destination in particular, but “away”. Away from her friends, her life, her situation.
Tamara (name has been changed) is looking for an adventure to take her as far away from her current reality as possible. She has dreams of making it to California but has no passport, no money and I’ve doubts as to whether or not she actually knows where California is. She has said she will settle for “somewhere…anywhere in BC.” She is leaving as soon as her traveling companion is ready.
I met Tamara first when I was working out west. She Is 17. She is a high school drop out. She parties often and usually ends up blackout drunk. She has real difficulty saying no. She is a ward of the province. She is Aboriginal. She is kind and clever and terribly funny. She is loyal and trusting. She is a good friend and an excellent listener. She gives phenomenal hugs and shares so much of herself when she has nothing. She is a most incredible soul and I’m worried for her safety.
I last saw Tamara three months ago when I left my job and began the journey as a consultant with Three Things. We said our goodbyes and from afar- through gossip and social media- I have seen her spiral ever downwards in the months since we last met. While she appears to be nowhere near the proverbial rock bottom, she’s struggling and has shared openly that feels abandoned. Again.
She Snapped me shortly after we left. “You’re not being rad” she said. “You left me here. You need to come back.” My heart broke for her.
Though I have learned to take no responsibility for her spiral (this is her life and these are her decisions); though I feel no guilt for her choices in life and where she is now, I do feel great sadness. This girl could make it. And instead of supporting her when she needed it the most, the system (social services, education, the community) failed her. Again. Tamara, this is my apology on behalf of the system, to you. I’m sorry we cannot get ourselves together in order to be there for you in the ways you need us to be. You are still a child in so many ways, and it is our duty to protect you. Support you. Care for you. Nurture you. See you grow into an amazing adult full of life and capability.
Tamara’s story is not unique. In the developing world of the adolescent, stability allows roots to grow. For our kids in care and custody, roots are a luxury. They are a concept all too foreign to the thousands of children and youth who’s “parents’” values are swayed every few years by popular vote and the economy.
Roots, consistency, stability. These things allow for children and youth to develop positive identities of themselves. They allow opportunities for youth to try out new things, challenge themselves, learn and grow into a healthy adult. Connections are made, belonging is created, meaning is found. If these young people…if this young woman could only be that lucky.
We see over and over again that the inconsistency of the system exacerbates existing feelings of grief and loss, feeding into continued instability of identity for those who need to hang onto that the most. Trust, acceptance, belonging…all of these things are powerfully formative to a young person. It’s hard to build your sense of self and solid, lifelong connections with people when your life is always uprooted. It’s hard to feel that there is a future that you can plan for and count on, when you’re not sure what’s going to happen day to day.
When there is so much inconsistency, you become used to it. This chaos becomes your representation and understanding of normal. And when people-often those who are damaging or exploitative to these vulnerable youth- create situations that replicate this chaos while feeding into the young person’s belief that they are loved and accepted, and that they belong, we find these youth gravitating towards riskier situations. Tamara told me she wanted to leave her life and travel because she wanted “to finally feel something [she] can understand.” Chaos and instability is comfortable once you’re used to it.
The fact that Tamara, a young woman, a girl, is upwards of 5 times more likely to experience violence than I am in her lifetime; that someone of her description is disproportionately more likely to be involved as the victim of a homicide than someone of mine ; that she is seen culturally, socially and politically as someone that doesn’t matter quite so much (our own Prime Minister suggesting that violence against Aboriginal women “ummm isn’t really high on our radar, to be honest….”) is not only heartbreakingly sad, but also further proof that we continue to fail her and others.
Our system is broken. What we need is an uncensored, unflinchingly honest critique of what needs to change on multiple levels. This includes how we understand racism, colonialism, poverty, social justice, politics, and data. We need to think differently to meet the needs of the 76+ thousand kids in care in this country. These are not my children, or yours. They are ours. All of ours. And -the majority who find themselves in care through no fault of their own- are our responsibility to love, protect, honour and nourish. It is our responsibility to create safe places for them to grow roots, learn to trust and understand they belong.
Support your provincial advocate for children and youth. Foster or adopt a child. Volunteer your time and give of yourself to someone else who needs it. Just because the system is broken doesn’t mean we can’t do something about it. Collectively, we can create a better future and a better today for these kids. They too are worth it.