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Leaders silent on BC's foster care mess

During last night's debate, no party leader made a peep about fixing foster care or child protection in B.C. But they did awkwardly talk around it.

Here's the context: This province is home to nearly 10,000 youth, aged 16 to 24, who are either finishing or have recently finished their time in the care of the province. We are their collective parents, and whoever becomes premier is elected Mom or Dad.

Since 2007, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth has been pumping out reports, slamming the province for failing to protect kids, failing administratively, failing to effectively intervene in domestic violence, and failing to fix other problems.

The result is, more than half of kids in care will arrive at 19 without a high school diploma, nearly half will have been caught for a crime, and half will go on income assistance within a few months of their birthday.

(In the U.S., just three per cent of former foster kids earn a postsecondary diploma; B.C. doesn't keep records.)

In addition, many have brain injuries such as fetal alcohol syndrome, and mental illnesses such as depression, and many live with trauma, which reduces their brain function.

In other words, this is a group that's been set up to fail in the so-called "knowledge economy."

Here's what leaders did talk about during the debate: jobs and training, and child poverty.

Adrian Dix accused Clark of cutting skills training, and creating a jobs plan that has resulted in 34,800 fewer private sector jobs.

Clark volleyed back that the Liberals are investing in jobs training, that the province has gained 33,000 jobs, and that the NDP will invest in training but the jobs will leave for Alberta.

Dix noted that young people need jobs training "for the jobs of the future." He promised the NDP will increase apprenticeship completion rates.

Clark said there's 100,000 jobs associated with liquefied natural gas (LNG), and that kids need the training to be ready for those jobs.

Dix brought up B.C.'s continuing record as the top province in Canada for child poverty.

Clark answered that child poverty is at its lowest level in decades, though more work needs to be done. And developing industry will reduce "parent poverty," which is the root of child poverty.

The good news: political leadership can fix it, says a guy who should know.

A few hours before the debate, I interviewed former premier Michael Harcourt. Back when he was a young adult, in the 1960s, he said, well-paying jobs were plenty for those without postsecondary, or even high school.

Now, though, new technology -- even in the resources sector -- means vulnerable youth who are not prepared for postsecondary are "sunk," he said.

"It's bad news for kids with learning disabilities or those who have traditionally not done well: immigrants who are struggling with language, aboriginal kids, young people with disabilities. This economy can be harsh for certain parts of the community."

Whichever party forms the next government, Harcourt noted that political leadership is sorely needed.

"We have these real challenges: foster care, the prison and mental health institutions and services for vulnerable women with kids. These systems are broken and need fixing. Kids on the street, we know they're dealing with mental illness, abuse, drugs, and also bipolar disorder, depression, and brain damage. . . we have a human tragedy.

"Foster kids we're not serving well, yet. I think we can. The wheels are starting to grind slowly."

On jobs, he said:

"We need to make this the number one issue in B.C. - matching kids in BC to the jobs that are going to be unfilled. There's tremendous potential there. Government, business, education, families, foster care and other institutions - we need to up our game, everyone, that we can satisfy this challenge.

"All these B.C. kids that are wandering and directionless – that's the biggest issue of today.

"We need to focus on it with the same intensity as in 1990s when we ended the war in the woods. We threw the whole weight of the provincial government into fixing it. There were huge initiatives, a new forest practices code, we changed the approach with First Nations, we spent $2 billion on forest renewal, and we put a lot of energy. When was the last time you heard of a dispute in the forests? We were able to fix that, and we can fix this.

"The reality is, we need them [all youth] and they need us."

Pieta Woolley reports on solutions to breaking the link between foster care and youth homelessness for The Tyee Solutions Society. This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI), with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. TCI and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

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