Quebec’s youth-protection system is shrouded in so much secrecy that it’s impossible to evaluate whether it’s working properly, an expert testified on Thursday before a special commission into children’s rights.
Nicolas Zorn, an academic who grew up in the youth-protection system, said that no one has been able to truly study the effectiveness of the provincial Direction de la protection de la jeunesse (DPJ) since it was created 40 years ago — largely because of concerns about violating the privacy of children and teens.
But Zorn pointed out that Statistics Canada routinely makes data about individuals anonymous when it studies household incomes, and he can’t see why the DPJ can’t do the same to allow researchers to examine the system. Instead, the government systematically destroys the files of youths in the system when they turn 18.
“We don’t have a clear portrait and it’s crazy that we spend $1 billion a year on the DPJ” without knowing more about it, Zorn told reporters after his presentation before the commission that was set up following the death of a neglected girl in Granby in April.
“The DPJ has existed for 40 years. That’s $40 billion, the equivalent of a James Bay, but we don’t know what functions and what doesn’t function as well. We have to have access to the information. The ministry must make it available to researchers.”
Zorn was also critical of the reforms by previous health minister Gaétan Barrette, saying that budget cuts hurt youth-protection services.
“We lost the Association des centres jeunesse du Québec, which was almost like an interest group for the youth-protection centres,” he noted.
However, Zorn appeared before the commission mostly in support of the DPJ. He cited his personal history as an example of how the DPJ can be effective in helping troubled youth.
Zorn entered the youth-protection system at the age of 11 following his parents’ divorce and his father’s sudden death. He stayed in the system until age 18.
Yet with the help of social workers and teachers, Zorn succeeded in attending university. In 2015, he obtained a PhD in political science from the Université de Montréal. Two years later, he wrote a book about his experience, entitled, J’ai profité du système — Des centres jeunesse à l’université (I benefited from the system — from youth centres to university).
“Stories like mine and the ones of so many others aren’t known,” Zorn told the Montreal Gazette, explaining why he decided to speak before the commission.
“We don’t know how much in many cases this system works, and we don’t know because we don’t necessarily give it the importance that’s required. We don’t necessarily see the positives.”
Zorn made a number of recommendations to commission chairperson Régine Laurent, including greater transparency for research data by the DPJ, and more resources for individuals who “age out” of the system when they turn 18.
“When people leave youth protection at 18 years old, the needs continue to be there, in some cases until they’re 25,” he explained. “But the problem is that the services end at 18, and so people don’t know which door to knock on, and what services might exist. There are lots of obstacles.”
Zorn recalled how he became aware that he was entitled to an annual bursary of $4,000 to pursue post-secondary education only when he was in his third year of undergraduate studies.
The commission later heard riveting testimony by Gabriel Darquenne, 27, who was bumped from no fewer than 38 foster homes and residential facilities overseen by youth protection from the age of 8 to 18. What’s more, when Darquenne turned 18, he ended up homeless because he was no longer being supported.
Despite those hardships, Darquenne is a couple of months away from finishing his law studies.
Darquenne called for more support services for parents and for individuals in youth protection to help them make the transition to adulthood.
The commission wrapped up its hearings for October and will reconvene on Nov. 5 in Montreal. The commission must submit its recommendations to the government by Nov. 30, 2020.