Imagine this: a teenaged boy, under the age of 18, both parents deceased, living with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder, addicted to meth, being actively recruited by multiple gangs, and living in a temporary Manitoba housing unit, visits his old school. The young man sits down with his former principal to ask for help – he’s done so on multiple occasions. “I’m addicted to meth, and I don’t want to be. I need help”, he says. The principal visits him at his temporary home and speaks to a worker. The worker says that they looked into getting him a spot at a detox ward but if he was accepted there – a stay that would last about 7 days – he would lose his bed at the housing complex, and be sent back to Child and Family Service’s central intake unit where he would find a new shelter for a few days, and start again.
Call after call finally leads to the Manitoba Child Advocate’s office, where a caring staff person is able to apply some pressure and the student finally gets into an addiction program a month later.
A teenage boy with a serious cognitive disability takes a bus to his old school to tell his principal he is addicted to meth, involved in crime, depressed, and desperately wanting help, and it takes dozens of calls and weeks of investigating to even establish an option, let alone find a feasible solution. If a white school leader leveraging every single resource he has to try and find help for a young man in trouble can’t do it without substantial obstacles and weeks of research, how can we expect families from disadvantaged communities, or the individual themselves, struggling as mightily as they are, to do so on their own?
The scenario above is true. I was that principal. I think often about this young man, and the many different things this experience tells me about how we, as the creators and officiants of systems designed to help our most vulnerable, still have many important lessons to learn. What makes this story so compelling, in addition to all of the aspects noted, is that this child wantedhelp, and couldn’t get it when it was needed the most.
Recently, Niigaan Sinclair, a columnist with the Winnipeg Free Press received a critical response in the form of a letter to the editor to a piece he wrote, where he suggested that the two men involved with the recent murders in Saskatchewan were let down by systems put in place to protect them over the course of their lives. The critic took exception with Mr. Sinclair’s point that we need to understand how someone finds themselves in a particular circumstance in life, and the myriad factors that contributed to how they got there.
The point is not that crimes should go unpunished or that we take anything away from the tragic nature of the action, but that we recognize a need to focus on preventing such atrocities from happening in the future by engaging in dialogue about root causes and the roles we as a society play, in supporting those suffering from such things as addiction, intergenerational trauma, and poverty. Mr. Sinclair was right to draw reference to this aspect of the story.
As the Winnipeg Free Press recently reported, over 80% of people who have committed crimes in Manitoba had contact at some stage with Child and Family Services. Furthermore, roughly 90% of children living in care are Indigenous. What further proof could be needed to justify the need for wide scale reform and investments across multiple sectors? Years lost in the system are years lost in building and maintaining relationships with family and community. Our current child welfare systems perpetuate, intentionally or not, some of the worst outcomes created by residential schools. We cannot afford to continue making these mistakes.
Every dollar we put into mental health, education, and addiction treatments, not only has the potential to save lives, but unquestionably saves us dollars that would otherwise be allocated to fees associated with the criminal justice system, hospital treatments, and other costs linked with crime and poor health.
Sadly, it would not surprise me to wake up one morning and learn that this former student of mine had been involved in a robbery, assault, or even worse, had killed someone, or himself ended up dead. What might someone think upon learning that news? Would they view him the same way they would of anyone guilty of such an unlawful act? Would they say – as many often do – “well, at least the gangsters are killing each other”? My hope, is that they would reflect on stories like the one of the young man sitting in my office, begging for help, desperate to change his life by doing everything he could with his limited resources to overcome the obstacles put in his way by society, and ask: what are we doing wrong?
Ben Carr is a former high school administrator and current Vice-President of Indigenous Strategy Group based in Winnipeg.