Today is Family Day in British Columbia. It’s a statutory holiday that was established by the government “as a day in February when families can spend quality time together.”
As a former youth in care I see the holiday as an opportunity to reflect on the complicated and diverse nature of family for myself and other people who grew up in the system. I know that for many youth in care some of the only adults in their lives are people like social workers who are paid to deal with them.
But how are these relationships defined and what happens after they are terminated?
My former workers had more of a positive and lasting influence on my life than most of my biological relatives and having them exit my life simply because I reached a birthday seemed harsh and arbitrary. As an adult it’s important for me to have some communication with these professionals who helped to shape the person I am today.
Brenda Copeland was my childcare worker from the time I was nine until I was about 11. During this period I went through several homes and schools. It was the most challenging period of my life and professionals like Copeland were the only supportive adults who were consistently there for me.
Copeland stands out in my memory as one of the most intelligent, professional, capable, and helpful child and youth care professionals who was ever assigned to my file. While she was unable to do much to alter the course of my life events she was able to give me the tools I needed to better face the turbulent times ahead.
Here’s a video in which I discuss her impact on my life:
I have carried her life lessons with me over the years and always wanted to reconnect with her but was not sure how appropriate it was. I am, after all, an adult now and felt that perhaps it was best to just move on with my life and respect her privacy. Eventually I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to just send her an email to let her know how much she meant to me.
When she responded she thanked me and told me that I was welcome to send her emails with updates on my achievements whenever I felt like it. I was pleasantly surprised at how she understood my need to re-establish dialogue.
“I’ve heard from young people such as yourself that we have carried that meaning or specialness throughout their lives,” says Copeland who now works as an instructor in child and youth care at the University of Victoria in Victoria, British Columbia. “Many times I’ve thought of you and other young people and families that I’ve worked with at various times throughout my work life. If I want to be true to my values and respect the privilege we had in our professional relationship in your childhood I need to respect communication that happens now.”
Tanya Gill Lalonde, who grew up in Alberta’s foster care system, says that her social workers were the only constant figures in her life growing up. She was placed in several foster homes throughout her childhood and adolescence. At times she also stayed with her former adoptive parents, her pastor, her friends’ homes, homeless shelters, and houses inhabited by “street people.”
“I didn’t count how many moves I did,” she recalls. “People were coming in and out and my life and my social worker was the one person who was there for me consistently and I think that’s why she was so important to me. When I was in trouble she was the one I called. She always let me know that she cared about me and probably cared more about me than she should have and even worried about me at night when I ran away or was moving between homes.”
She says that social workers were about the closest thing she had to parents. If she missed class they were the ones who came to the school to talk to the principal, they gave her trouble if she needed to be in trouble, and they were the ones who worried about her if she went missing.
“They did all the things that parents usually did,” says Lalonde. “I loved them, but was confused because I remember that they couldn’t really say that back. It’s not like they could say ‘Tanya I love you’ but I felt it in what they did. These really were people I loved very much.”
Today Lalonde is a now 32-year-old student, wife, and mother of three who has been out of the system for over 12 years but she still makes a point of calling in on her former workers whenever she visits Alberta.
“They are the ones I love to make them proud. They are the ones I still feel are an important part of my life. They’ve met my kids and I’m always happy to tell them the good and bad things that happen in my life.”
Copeland believes that professionals working with young people should encourage their clients to create healthy relationships within their community and family but recognizes the reality that professional relationships are sometimes the most stable bond some young people may know for periods of their lives.
“When you’re the paid person in that young person’s life you hope and dream that the young person will have a support network and sense of connection with others beyond yourself,” she says. “But at the same time we also acknowledge there is a very unique bond that happens between a counsellor and a young person in care and we need to respect that in terms of boundaries and also respect the meaning that it has for you as a professional and for the young person.”
Angie Cross, who grew up in British Columbia’s foster care system and went on to co-found the BC Federation of Youth in Care Networks as well as the Foster Care Alumni of America, says that when we grow up in foster care we learn early on that our relationships are dictated for us which can prevent us from forging many lasting bonds.
“We don’t get to learn in an authentic way how to develop relationships that are equally balanced so many of us don’t know how to seek out relationships that aren’t defined for us,” she says from her home in Kyle, Texas. “We don’t know how not to be in relationships that don’t expire with time, an end of contract, or a move. Sometimes we get uncomfortable and feel like a relationship has a to end whether it’s going good or not. Our relationships come to an end so abruptly when we are in foster care and we don’t know how to stay present in one for a long time.”
The relationship between a youth in care and their worker normally comes to a formal end when the youth reaches the age of majority. Consequently, many of the end goals discussed between youth and worker terminate with a birthday.
“When you’re in foster care no one really talks to you about getting old,” says Cross. “They talk to you about exiting foster care and do these measurable outcomes and check-lists they have to have done when you leave care but nobody says what you will do as a parent or what things will look like when you’re 40 or 50. I never thought when I was younger that I’d live past exiting foster care never mind living old enough to have laugh lines. And what that means is my life is fulfilling enough to proudly wear wrinkles of fun and happiness.”
Cross says that one of the best things that social workers and other professionals working with can do for their youth is share a bit of their own lives and families with youth who may have little concept of what a healthy home life looks like.
“I would say I’ve learned about how to be in a relationship and be a good mom from people who are in good relationships and are good parents,” she says. “I wasn’t privilege to any of that so my gauge of how to be in a relationship is skewed. Having access to social workers, teachers, mentors, or foster parents in good relationships helps that lopsided thing so they are not in some superior roles. So if they share a glimpse of that it takes a bit of the power and makes the connection more authentic and human.”
Lalonde intends to keep the bond she had with her workers alive and well through her career choice as a social worker. She now wants to be that person for other people and is currently finishing up a bachelor of social work degree at McGill University in Montreal.
“A big part of my decision to pursue social work as a profession was that I hoped and thought that it wouldn’t be so bad to be that person to someone else,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be in care and I know what it’s like to have difficulties in life and how it feels to have someone who cares enough to help you through and be safe.”