Children and teenagers who end up in Quebec’s youth protection services often arrive bearing a backpack of life experiences marked by violence, mistreatment and negligence. They have felt wounded, betrayed and humiliated by the most important people in their lives. People that should have been giving them comfort and security, but who, for several reasons, could not fulfill that role.
Those life experiences are key to their development, said Delphine Collin-Vézina, head of McGill’s research centre on childhood and family, addressing a provincial commission into youth rights and protection Tuesday. The Commission spéciale sur les droits des enfants et la protection de la jeunesse (CSDEPJ) was set up following the death of a neglected girl in Granby in April.
“Influenced by their traumas, they, with reason, perceive the world as dangerous, wait to be betrayed again, and so put people at distance to better protect themselves.” Their interpersonal traumas translate into behaviour problems, and they are tagged as oppositional, defiant, immature, don’t know how to manage their anger, who lash out too quickly. They don’t go to school. They run away from home and they end up in the system.
While the tags might be correct, there is a tendency in Quebec’s youth protection system to focus too much on the behavioural issues without taking the time to evaluate and treat the trauma behind them, Collin-Vézina said. Social workers with too little experience, often straight out of school, are the front-line workers tasked with evaluating children and deciding whether they should be sent to youth protection centres, or back to their families. Children and teenagers who have long learned its safer to hide scars from adult strangers than to confide.
To improve the current system, Collin-Vézina said more emphasis must be placed on training youth care workers, teachers and foster families on the impact of trauma, and the signs and symptoms. Those workers need to be given more resources and training to heal the trauma, and ensure the children are not re-traumatized while in their care.
“I hope that the youth protection system can become reworked and improved so that a child’s passage through the system can become a healing one to lead them toward a better future as opposed to a system that has not seen them or heard them in their most fundamental needs.”
This story will be updated.