It has always struck me as somewhat ironic that the most passionate, compelling and well-documented research about institutional failure so often results in the elimination of programs that are dedicated to providing youth with experiences and memories that defy bureaucratic and institutional dullness and routine. The institutions survive, often increase their funding, and thrive on the perpetuation of adolescent dysfunction. In Ontario, we have had repeated calls for the reduction of residential group care as the principal experience for youth in their everyday lives from individuals and organizations that are credible and experienced; in fact, our own Ministry of Children and Youth Services, which directly or indirectly funds the vast majority of the residential care system, released a report in 2006 making it clear that a reduction in residential group care was an absolute priority. This type of care, it was found through discussions with care providers themselves, was ineffective and in many cases, made things worse for the youth being cared for. Similarly, the former Chief Child Advocate of Ontario, who had worked relentlessly for 16 years pointing out the many failings of residential group care, had released a report just prior to her departure from the office clearly recommending that residential group care be reduced in favour of family-based care wherever possible, and other ways of supporting youth be promoted that allow for greater youth empowerment, participation, and adherence to youth rights under the law and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child.
Yet once again, I have come across a situation where what in my view was perhaps the “best” program for “edgy” youth I have seen and experienced was eliminated because of funding issues, while funding for residential group care, notwithstanding chronic problems, continues unabated. I want to be clear that this is not a matter of blaming those burdened with the decision-making authority at the agency level. It is, however, somewhat of an indictment of the translation of our values, our hopes, and our social capacity to assist edgy youth into policy and funding mechanisms, and perhaps it is also an indictment of our complacency toward watching the best of what we offer fade away, and the worst of what we impose thrive.
Going Beyond was an adventure-based program designed and developed by child and youth workers at a Children's Aid Society in south-western Ontario. While it was motivated at least in part by logistical concerns within the residential programs of the agency, the child and youth workers involved very quickly converted a band-aid solution to a logistical challenge into a solid, theoretically grounded, action and adventure-based initiative that reflected, in every way, the values, ethics, and aspirations of the child and youth care profession. Far from seeking to change youth, impose structure and routine, manipulate behaviour, control the formation of identity and perpetuate the disempowerment of youth through well-crafted rationalizations for why this or that is not possible, Going Beyond was a program in which everything was indeed possible; from the very beginning, the program articulated its goals within an understanding of the entire life span of the human being. Glenn and Julia, along with John and Lee Anne, four child and youth workers determined to re-imagine our engagement with very “edgy” youth, set out to create memories, knowing that the only outcome that is indeed sustainable by definition, are in fact memories. Together they took youth camping in some of the most remote areas of Ontario (20 times), they drove over 90,000 kms with youth and sometimes parents, they engaged over 300 youth involved with child welfare, and yet they never had to phone the police, they sustained no property damage other than wear and tear, and they never had to intervene physically with any of the youth participating in the activities. Their participants included youth with criminal records based on sexual crimes, violent crimes, and property crimes; almost all had brushes with the law at some point in their lives, and many had had extensive periods of custody and severely restrictive probationary terms for most of their adolescence. In some cases, youth participants who “aged” out of the system came back to the group as volunteers and peer mentors.
Over the course of the three years that Going Beyond operated, Glenn and Julia, who were the principal CYWs involved, took well over 5,000 pictures of youth doing what youth ought to do: challenging themselves, goofing off, being silly, getting frustrated, laughing and sometimes crying. They wrote over 100 special reports, complete with pictures that detailed some of the amazing accomplishments of individual youth. And they made it a point to talk to and share stories with the parents or care givers of the youth related to their strengths, their resilience, their courage, and their amazing and wonderful personalities.
Going Beyond went beyond child welfare culture and the limited vision of protection work and gave youth an opportunity to be; something that they almost never are afforded in a system that is focused squarely on their need to become. And yet, now it is gone, not beyond, but committed to the memory of something great, something that happened because a small group of exceptional child and youth workers had the courage to imagine something different. Child Welfare in Ontario once again has had to struggle with funding shortages that have impacted specifically those initiatives that reflected the system’s attempt to “transform” itself. After years of promoting the virtues of a kinder, gentler approach to protecting children and youth from harm, one that takes into account the resilience and strengths of families even when these are not so apparent, child welfare is back to doing what it has always done: identify harm, act where necessary, place children and youth in what are often woefully inadequate placements, and hope for the best.
The agency that operated Going Beyond is a good agency, directed by smart and dedicated individuals, many with decades of experience and most have themselves worked on the front lines with youth and families in the past. It is not a question of their culpability, or of their complacency, or of their failure. And yet, even in this agency, the group homes are full, youth are thriving within their social, emotional and physical decomposition, and child and youth workers, social workers, and even administrative professionals despair over the misery but they continue to perpetuate it; unwillingly, perhaps even inadvertently, but they do. They are cheered on by legislation, by policy, and by the public system of regulatory and bureaucratic directives, imperatives, demands and routines.
This runs counter to our values as professionals and as communities. It violates our sense of justice and fairness. It fails to account for our belief that children and youth are the future, should be nurtured, and deserve our attention. And it fundamentally flies in the face of empirical and qualitative evidence related to what actually benefits those youth who, for a wide range of reasons, live on the edge. So how do we end up with publicly generated systems that in no way reflect our values? And who is to blame?
Perhaps with age we do in fact become more cynical, but I have to conclude that this is a collective failure on all of our parts. It is easy to blame the decision-makers within an agency, or the government, or, sadly, the youth themselves. It is also easy to rationalize the loss of Going Beyond within the context of logistical issues, service priorities, crisis management. In fact, I don’t believe it is about any of this, and I certainly fail to see the value of blaming anyone in particular. Instead, I believe that we have all contributed to the breakdown in the translation of our values into a set of laws and policies that actually reflect those values. We have collectively accepted reality at the exclusion of the imagination. We believe in what there is, and we have lost interest in what we cannot yet see. And while we are busy trying to control our youth, we have given up entirely on the project of controlling the translation of our values.
This is, in my mind a depressing story, reflecting all that is wrong with how we think about youth, life, and service. But is does have a silver lining, thanks to four child and youth workers. Glenn, Julia, John and Lee Anne had the courage to go beyond, to be with youth without the protection of structure, rules, policies and a direct line to the police department. They were with youth here, there, and everywhere, searching for nothing in particular, just being. They weren’t infected by the need to promote becoming; they understood that becoming is just the cumulative effect of being every day.
From my perspective, unencumbered by the enormous burden of protecting children from harm within the institutional context of child welfare agencies, I am profoundly disappointed that we still are failing so miserably in our caring for those youth who have a mind of their own and don’t mind using it. I am baffled as to why we keep up institutional responses that may work for some youth, but that we know leave many youth behind, sometimes literally in the dust of underpasses and abandoned properties used as makeshift homes. And I am saddened by the loss of programs such as Going Beyond, programs that allow youth to just be.
But I am inspired by the courage of those who break out of this self-perpetuating tunnel of darkness. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that at least in this case, the “culprits” were child and youth workers. This is the beauty of a profession still finding its way: going beyond does not mean going there; it means going somewhere and enjoying the ride. So here is to Glenn, Julia, John and Lee Anne, and to every other child and youth worker who has the courage to imagine.