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Services for at-risk youth in B.C.: Moving from dysfunction to effective support

Photo: Valerie Williams/Flickr

Guest blogger Diana Guenther drew on extensive work experience in social services to develop her MSW thesis on improving services for at-risk youth in B.C. She shares some of her key recommendations here.

Having worked with at-risk youth for 15 years and in three different countries, I have always been quite puzzled about the rudimentary and limited professional, community-based and preventive services available for children and youth in B.C. After all, investing in children, youth and family services is not only a hallmark of a caring and a just society, it also makes economic sense. As a social worker noted in a report by Pivot Legal Society:

The public needs to recognize that it is either pay now (providing supports, resources and placements) or pay later (jails, youth detention, homelessness, school drop outs, gangs, mental health and addiction issues)…

The history of provincial child, youth, family and social services in B.C. is characterized by privatization, a fragmentation of service delivery, underfunding, frequent restructuring and a business model logic that frequently misses the mark. Important stakeholders do not have a strong voice in the policy arena.

My research into the sector leads me to recommend the following changes:

1. Address the current democracy deficit in the social service sector.
The current configuration (centralized policy making and de-centralized/privatized service delivery) has created fragmented services and a competitive and dysfunctional policy environment, and has sidelined too many stakeholders. The arena of policymaking in the area of at-risk, disadvantaged and street-involved youth is dominated by senior bureaucrats and politicians -- who are far removed from the problem itself. We need to create forums in which politicians and senior bureaucrats can reconnect and work jointly with all stakeholders and be accountable back to communities. Perhaps the Resource Board model for social services which was in place in the 1970s needs to be re-visited. The Resource Boards for Social Services functioned similar to School Boards -- locally elected representatives steered the direction of services and responded to community needs.

2. Return to social work and youth work values.
Managerialism and business logic has crept into every aspect of the sector. For example, the functional model of service delivery which was initially developed by MCFD bureaucrats in the 1980s is not based on basic social work values such as continuity of care. At every junction or intersection of this system, youth get assigned a new worker. A high staff turnover or constant changes in case workers means that supportive, trusting and long-lasting relationships between vulnerable/at-risk youth and a worker are less likely to occur. This de-stabilizes youth even further. Continuity of care for at-risk youth needs to be one of the guiding principles of this sector.

3. Reduce the corporate orientation of the non-profit sector.
In recent decades, the non-profit sector in Vancouver has changed: as the bigger non-profits survived cuts/restructuring, the smaller non-profit often went under. Wages for frontline staff are often low and there is little job security. The connection to community for larger non-profits is weakened as they often operate not only city-wide or region-wide but also country-wide. Board members are increasingly drawn from the business elite, espousing a business (not a community development) perspective. The non-profit model that I believe in has an ongoing connection and dialogue with community members about the services needed, and is accountable to the community and children and youth they serve. I would like to see more social workers, youth workers, youth, parents, academics, politicians, activists, municipal and provincial bureaucrats, teachers, etc. as board members.

4. Invest in community-based youth services.
A functional divide between youth services (focus on prevention, support, informal education, early intervention) and social services for youth in crisis is common in many western European countries. Both service streams need to be adequately funded and integrated. Under the current set-up, resources are primarily tied up in crisis work, and not enough money is invested in prevention and support. Community-based youth services that offer services to all youth but focus some of their resources on vulnerable youth in order to stabilize them in their communities should be enhanced. Many municipalities offer some youth services through their recreation departments or community centers. If municipal and provincial government would join forces/resources, this model could be enhanced.

5. Provide services for young adults/older youth leaving care
The vast majority of youth in care do not have the resources and/or life skills to transition into independence at the age of 19. Even the most privileged youth who come from supportive families rarely do. We need more services for young adults leaving care.

6. Focus on the needs of aboriginal youth
Aboriginal youth are over-represented among marginalized and homeless youth -- according to research by the McCreary Centre, 57 per cent of street-involved youth are aboriginal. Debates in social services have often focused on the rights of native communities to develop their own social service responses; just as important however, is the differentiation amongst aboriginal youth and the patterns of exclusion which have been created over the decades. There are big differences between healthy and struggling native communities, aboriginal youth with and without Indian status, urban aboriginal youth and aboriginal youth living on-reserve (with a connection to community), first nations with and without settled land claims. We need to focus our resources on the most disadvantaged aboriginal youth, while also challenging the system which creates such harmful differentiation.

These policy recommendations are based on my SFU Masters Research Project: How have neoliberal shifts from the 1980s to the present day in social welfare delivery changed the services provided to street youth in Vancouver? The full text of this project can be found here: https://theses.lib.sfu.ca/thesis/etd6962

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