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’Canaries in the coal mine’: Report highlights missing child, youth within B.C.’s welfare system

Report finds ‘systemic’ challenges in child welfare system but finds problems across social systems
Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, says children and youth lost and missing from the child welfare system are “canaries in the coal mine” of a child welfare system that is “struggling to provide safe, nurturing and timely care” for them. (Black Press Media file photo) (InWithForward)

Lost children and youth in government care are “canaries in the coal mine” of a child welfare system that is “struggling to provide safe, nurturing and timely care” for them.

So reads a report from Jennifer Charlesworth, Representative for Children and Youth, which explores why children are disappearing from the child welfare system.

Charlesworth said her office commissioned the report after it received more than 500 reports about children and youth in provincial care who were reported lost, missing or away from their placement and who experienced critical injuries or were considered at risk of harm. She added that these reports represented 198 children, four of whom died, between April 1 to Dec. 31, 2022. All four were young girls with three being First Nations.

“The stories of the 198 children and youth who were reported as lost or missing and unsafe, and the four children who died during the time period of the RCY review, are troubling indicators of a child welfare system that is unable on its own to provide the necessary and adequate care for children and youth,” Charlesworth said.

Charlesworth said their stories highlight “systemic challenges” across systems that serve children including but not just the child welfare system itself. Other areas include health, education, mental health and substance use, justice and housing, she said.

“Focusing solely on the challenges of the child welfare system offers the same limited view of the issue as the review of individual characteristics of missing children.”

The report defines missing children and youth as children and youth, whose whereabouts are unknown to the child welfare agency, where information about the circumstances that contributed to or arose in the disappearance often appears unknown or incomplete.

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“There is, in fact a wide spectrum of “missingness” from the system of care – ranging from children who are missing for a short period, to those who disappear and never return home,” Charlesworth said, adding that she extremely concerned about the number of young people who are missing from a system supposedly protecting and nurturing them.

“It should be an issue that troubles all British Columbians.”

It is also a field still in need of more research with the actual number of lost or missing children and youth likely higher than the record number.

The report said no complete and accurate number currently exists, however, the report cites an internal document from the Ministry of Children and Family Development estimating that 2.3 per cent of children and youth in care have run away, compared to 0.7 per cent within the general population.

Charlesworth was able to identify at least six per cent of children in the child welfare system whose whereabouts were unknown over the course of this review. Charlesworth suspects that number is “likely considerably higher given the ministry’s (self-assessed) poor reporting compliance.”

The report stresses that it does not mean to cast blame on individuals who work with these children – be it as part of MCFD or Indigenous Child and Family Services Agencies or elsewhere, “but rather to begin to explore the role of the child-serving system in creating the conditions that lead to so many children and youth becoming lost, going missing or disappearing from care.”

The report said children and youth go missing because of ‘push and pull’ factors. Push factors include inadequate care, while pull factors include a need for belonging and community.

Looking at systemic factors in the provincial child care system, the report found problems with stigmatizing language, “inadequate and ineffective services available to meet their needs and adequately support them” and colonial values.

“The historic and ongoing disruptions to belonging created by colonization and embedded within the current child welfare system pose significant systemic threats to the well-being of young people,” it reads.

“Many of the stories reviewed for this brief spoke about children fleeing the child welfare system to return to family, culture and community, to find siblings and friends, and return to places that nurture their sense of identity and belonging.”

The report also laments a labour shortage in the child welfare system: “One of the major systemic challenges facing the child welfare system today is the recruitment and retention of a skilled workforce.”

Black Press Media has reached out to MCFD for comment.


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Wolf Depner

About the Author: Wolf Depner

I joined the national team with Black Press Media in 2023 from the Peninsula News Review, where I had reported on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula since 2019.
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