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A Spring Loss

Scott Deveau 8 Apr
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Classrooms across Vancouver are buzzing about the blossoms on the cherry trees--which to many are the first tangible sign of spring.  However, for the families of Queen Alexandra elementary school, this spring has been bittersweet because of a drastic change that came with the new season.

After 10 years of service, their family advancement worker, Thuy Pham, was yanked from their midst and, for the time being, is out of work.

Family advancement workers were an essential part of life for those inner-city schools that were lucky enough to have them.  Their purpose was to ease the transition for recently immigrated families and to provide counseling for those who suffer the damaging affects of addiction, violence, and neglect.  But despite the huge demand for their services, on March 31, their ten positions across the city were eliminated because of governmental downsizing--a by-product of the $70 million in budget cuts from the Ministry of Children and Development's this year.

Queen Alexandra's principal, Vic Kusaka said Pham, who speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese and English, plays a critical role in the school, where 70 per cent of the population speaks English as a second language.  Pham over the years has developed an intimate bond with the families of Queen Alexandra--something that could easily be lost when bounced against a language barrier.

"Thuy really fills a vacuum and we wouldn't know how to proceed in many cases without her," Kusaka said.

Pham emigrated from Vietnam more than 15 years ago and her small room, that now sits abandoned in the basement of Queen Alexandra, has seen a generation of families pass through her care.  Pham spent long hours working through their family problems in her office and even went into their homes to explain to their parents and grandparents how raising children in Canada is different than raising children elsewhere.  This is where her background as an immigrant and a multi-linguist played an essential role.

Pham also planned day trips to places like the library or Van Dusen Gardens; places that may never have been discovered by the families who speak so little English that they unable to navigate through the city or its bus routes.

In some cases, it was even necessary for Pham to teach children how to eat western food because they aren't accustomed to eating it at home.

Chin Pham [no relation] and her family have come to rely on this service at Queen Alexandra.   Chin's youngest son, Jason, was in grade one when he transferred from a Burnaby school to Queen Alexandra.

"I thought he was just like a normal boy," said Chin, whose English wasn't strong enough to communicate with his teachers in Burnaby.

Thuy said she remembers when Jason transferred. He was six-years old at the time, but had the academic and emotional development of a child two years his junior and was developing behavioral problems because the other kids were teasing him.

"He didn't know how to eat the food at school, so he wasn't eating at all," Thuy recalls.

His teacher brought Jason's problems to Thuy's attention.   She called Chin and found out that Jason was being raised in a strictly Vietnamese manner--not speaking English at home and only eating Vietnamese food. After meeting with Chin and speaking to her their native language, Vietnamese, Thuy encouraged Chin to take some of her parenting classes where she learned how to cook western dishes to help encourage Jason to try new foods, address his poor behavior, and to join in on some of the social classes Thuy was providing at the school.

Since Thuy became involved in her son's life, Chin said Jason is not only doing better in school but he has also curbed his bad behavior and is eating the food that is served up in the cafeteria.

Thuy said 60 per cent her cases were a result of cultural clashes that manifest in anything from extreme isolation to domestic violence and she worked to resolve this by meeting with the families and explaining to them how things are done differently in Canada.

Until this spring, advancement workers were the product of a 15-year relationship between Family Services of Greater Vancouver [under the Ministry of Children and Family Development] and the Vancouver School Board.

School board trustee Kevin Millsip said the relationship was simple but important, "they supplied the person, we provided the office." However, this year things changed when the advancement workers were cut from the Family Services' budget, terminating their partnership with the school board.

"It was not our decision, it was a funding decision," says Ethel Whitty, associate executive director at Family Services for Greater Vancouver. Kate Thompson, spokesperson at the MCFD, said that the ministry is trying to find programs that are broader reaching and are trying to place social workers in the community itself so they are more accessible to everyone who needs them, not just individual school communities.

However, Whitty said that simply transferring a service from the school into the community is something that is very difficult to do effectively.   In reality, Whitty said, the MCFD has eliminated the family advancement program entirely.

Family Services is setting up a new program that will work on a referral basis from the schools through the ministry, and they hope to hire Pham to fill this role.   "I suspect the cases won't start to trickle in until the fall, if they do at all."

The families who will feel it the most, Whitty said, are the families who are not going to come in for care from the ministry.  They need the community support, but their problems are too private for them to go the ministry itself.   These people, she suspects, will likely struggle along with the difficulties in their lives without coming to anyone's notice. "The loss is really that more schools could have used [the advancement workers]," Whitty said.

The ministry is also negotiating a similar program that will work out of the six neighbourhood houses across the city.   Neighbourhood houses provide community services from paid day-care and parenting classes to language courses and support groups and they have recently been awarded a contract similar to the one the family advancement workers had.

No one has quite figured out how the new system will work, but three things are certain: there will no longer be school-based family counseling, the new program will require a referral from the MCFD, which will eliminate the open door policy that made the programs so successful at the schools, and finally, as of today, there is nothing available for the families who relied on this service.

"I don't think [the government] considered the human toll," said Donna Chang, the executive director of Cedar Cottage neighbourhood house, which is the house nearest to Queen Alexandra.  Chang said Cedar's jurisdiction is from Broadway and Clarke to 41st and Fraser and she said she doubts that one person will be able to handle the caseload for the area.

There is an element of the unknown in this whole process because the neighbourhood houses don't know who or how many clients will be referred to them or even where these new offices will be located, Chang said, because they haven't heard where their offices will be based.

"For the families on the Eastside, they've had to experience so much change--the threats of having to come off income assistance to the individual support at the schools, the threat of what's going to happen to the classroom teachers that my children have.  There is so much of that right now, that people don't understand that under business change--and this is essentially what it is--that you have people in the heart of it, that are saying 'I just don't know where to turn anymore.'"

Pham said she too is worried for the families who came to her for help. "Those who think my service is better used out in the community don't realize that [Queen Alexandra] is the community," Pham said.  [Tyee]

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