Canada's only SOS Children's Village provides a stable home to B.C. kids
School's out. Two little girls with books tucked ter under their arms chat away happily as they go up the front steps of their house.
The five-bedroom house looks little different from others that are built or being built along a quiet street in this Surrey neighbourhood - until you go to the back yard.
It's nearly two acres shared with four neighbouring houses. There's a basketball court, playground equipment and a massive lawn backing onto a forest. There's a separate building with a kitchen, living room, music room with drums, guitars and other instruments and a room for art.
This is SOS Children's Village. It's unique in Canada and one of only five in North America.
I met David there earlier this week. Sitting at a picnic bench in the yard, the 18-year-old told me that he's studying political science at college. He wants to be Canada's first aboriginal prime minister.
Six years ago, David and his family - the one he's been part of since he was a month old - moved to the village, which opened in 2004.
The village model - used mainly in developing countries - is based on the belief that loving, consistent parenting, a stable home and a supportive community create "a circle of healing, belonging and positive growth" for children in need.
The definition of children in need is situational. Among the children housed in developing countries are former child soldiers and AIDS orphans.
Here, it's aboriginal children. They comprise nearly half the children in the province's care.
"It would help our society if there were a lot more of these villages," David says simply. "It's the people you grow up with who shape who you are. I would have been a lot different person ... Life would have been a lot different."
David calls the foster mom next door 'Auntie' and, for most of the 15 other kids in the village, David is regarded as a trusted, older brother.
"There's a lot more support here," he says. "You can count on anybody. It feels like one big family."
SOS Children's Villages B.C. owns the homes, which are rented at half the market value to foster parents who have contracts with the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society. That society, in turn, has a contract with the provincial Ministry of Children and Family Development to pro-vide services to urban aboriginal children and their families.
It takes a village to raise any child, but it requires an especially strong one for foster children because their needs are greater. But the foster-care system often appears the antithesis of that.
It's well known that the first few years of a child's life are crucial. Yet, one of the moms in the village told me about an 11-month-old baby and a 23-month-old baby. By the time they came to her, they'd been in five different homes.
(For the children's protection and to meet government confidentiality requirements, none of the mothers can be named, nor can the children's real names be used.)
Another mom had a teenage boy who had previously been in 14 different homes. One day, he arrived home from school to find his bed stripped. His mom hadn't had time to put the clean sheets on. It took a lot to convince him that he wasn't being moved again.
While another boy was away at weekend camp, his mom painted his room in Canucks' colours. Instead of being happy, he was distraught. He was certain his few possessions would be shoved into a garbage bag and he'd be moved. He was sure she did it for someone else. It couldn't have been for him.
"These are very broken children," she said.
The statistical profile of B.C. kids in care is tragic.
Slightly more than half of the kids are considered 'special needs' compared with 8.4 per cent of children who had never been in care, according to a 2007 report by the B.C. Child and Youth Advocate.
By age 16, it says, three-quarters of the boys and nearly half the girls had intensive behavioural or serious mental health issues. Some were traumatized in infancy and traumatized again when they were taken from their families. Some have fetal alcohol syndrome or attention deficit disorder.
Many of those issues are exacerbated by the foster-care system itself - the frequent moves, too few social workers, a paucity of willing foster parents resulting in heavier loads for the willing and group homes for kids when there's nowhere else to go.
The perfectly justifiable requirement that people who care for these children have criminal record checks has unintended consequence for kids already stigmatized for being different. They can't go to another kid's house unless the parents have had a criminal record check.
It means that in the middle of the night, if a child needs to be rushed to emergency, the other kids have to be awakened, bundled up and taken to the hospital too. They can't be left alone and a foster parent can't just call a neighbour.
Unless they live in the village.
Most foster parents spent hours ferrying kids back and forth to counselling each month. In the village, social workers comes to them and there's an SOS counselor as well. If the kids don't want to talk , sometimes the counselling takes place on the basketball court. Homework is another friction point for all kids and parents. So, SOS program director Corina Carroll hired a certified teacher. Once a week, the tutor comes to the village and eight other times during the week, the tutor helps village kids and others at local schools. Those extras cost money. SOS donors pay for them.
As Carroll says, the idea is to create "a perfect storm of people" attending not only to the needs of the children, but to the foster parents' needs as well.
It's the kind of storm that this province needs more of.
9 May 2012