CANADA FOCUS B.C.

Trouble on the ranch

Supporters rally to keep a foster home for teens open

CHRIS WOOD April 12 1999
CANADA FOCUS B.C.

Trouble on the ranch

Supporters rally to keep a foster home for teens open

CHRIS WOOD April 12 1999

Trouble on the ranch

CANADA FOCUS B.C.

Supporters rally to keep a foster home for teens open

CHRIS WOOD

Most days, Monica Nemes can be found behind the chair of her tiny white stucco beauty salon just down the hill from South Okanagan Secondary School and overlooking the rest of the town of Oliver, B.C., population 8,000. Cheerful and chatty, she dispenses the latest dos with a strong dose of personal opinion. Nemes is steamed, and her salon is her soapbox to lobby captive customers on the issue that has incensed her: the uncertain future of a place called the Victoria Creek Youth Ranch. For a decade, the foster facility outside the town has accepted some of the area’s most troubled teenage boys and, with a mix of hard work, tough love and job-training, turned many of their lives around. In February, the B.C. ministry for children and families ordered it closed. Nemes is incredulous. “I was totally stupefied that they would even think of closing it down,” she says. “I talk to everybody who comes in, trying to get them to write letters.” Her cause is one many in Oliver have taken up. Among those who have spoken out to praise the work of the 8.4-hectare facility are school counsellors from South Okanagan Secondary, the head of the local RCMP and real estate agent Karen Lewis, who has lived next door to the ranch for nine years. Like many locals, Lewis is astounded at the ministry’s reason for closing the facility: allegations that its operators, Cara and Lloyd Risling, put their young charges at risk by drinking and arguing. “That is such a crock,” says Lewis. “My three boys have been brought up with the boys from the ranch. There is no safer place for my kids to be.”

But the fate of the Victoria Creek Ranch has a significance that goes beyond the dun-coloured pastureland and neat orchard rows of the South Okanagan. Other foster parents talk of an atmosphere of intimidation and fear accompanying the B.C. ministry’s relations with its more than 4,000 foster homes. The ministry has a history of controversy. In 1996, it was reorganized and renamed, after evidence emerging from an investigation of one child’s death showed that 263 others under the ministry’s auspices had died in the previous decade. The following year, a foster parent in Victoria was found to have severely injured a baby girl entrusted to her care.

Since then, the number of children seized by ministry staff has soared—jumping by 50 per cent between 1995 and 1998. And, critics say, the ministry’s emphasis has swung so far towards minimizing every possible risk to youth in its care that many foster parents now feel they have become victims. “Fear is a very common thing,” says Liza Carter, a veteran foster parent in Prince George and an advocate. Colleagues who have come under ministerial scrutiny feel their lives “are in a fishbowl for anybody and everybody to pass judgment on,” Carter says. “The perception that they are guilty until proven innocent is common around the province.”

The Victoria Creek Ranch makes an unlikely battleground. Located on a winding side road about 10 minutes

from Oliver, it is an unassuming place that looks like what it is: a working ranch. The driveway passes between a woodlot and paddocks on the way to a yard lined with stables, work sheds and farm equipment. In the corral, Belgian draft horses stamp large shaggy hooves into the mud; dogs thrust inquisitive muzzles into a visitor’s hand. In the kitchen, Cara Risling serves coffee in big, ranch-size mugs and talks about the couple’s goals. “We take the given-up-on kids,” she says. “We’ve had them where the social workers are so scared they won’t go to pick them up.” At their home, the Rislings say, the boys receive love, clear and consistent house rules, and a grounding in good work habits—both on the ranch and in more than three dozen local businesses that have agreed to accept teens from the facility.

By all accounts, the approach has worked well with many of the roughly 60 youths who have passed through the ranch, five at a time, in its 11 years of providing foster care. Victoria Creek, says David Freel, 21, who spent five years there and now lives in Kelowna, “saved me from a nowhere life of crime, drugs and alcohol. The ranch showed me morals, and taught me to like and respect myself as a person.” Locals have witnessed similar transformations in dozens of other boys. “The ones we’ve seen come out we’ve seen a change,” asserts Sgt. Arnie Ziegler, commander of the Oliver RCMP detachment, who considers the Rislings “very trustworthy and competent”

As recently as last August, the ministry seemed to agree. In multifaceted assessments of care given to six troubled teenagers, social workers described the ranch’s performance as “excellent” 45 times and “above average” 43 times; in seven places it was ranked as merely “average,” the lowest score it received on the assessments. Nonetheless, on Feb. 8, ministry social worker Cheryl Beauchamp

wrote to the Rislings to inform them that its investigators had looked into allegations they had used physical discipline on foster children and verbally and emotionally abused youth in their care. Her letter conceded the charge of physical discipline “has not been substantiated,” and that “there has been consistent criticism around the reliability of the individual making these allegations.” But, noting a string of previous allegations and “several confirmed reports regarding alcohol misuse in your home between 1989 and 1996,” Beauchamp told the Rislings their ranch had lost its approval to operate.

The Rislings and their many local supporters strongly reject the ministry’s charges. “We work with high-risk kids that we expect will make allegations,” Cara Risling says. “This is a form of power for them.” The couple do admit to occasional tensions in their marriage, and that Lloyd Risling did occasionally drink to excess in the past—although never on ranch property. But they insist he has been sober, aside from two brief slips, since joining Alcoholics Anonymous in 1993.

Among dozens of local people who have come to the defence of the ranch are three of the four youths who remain there until the ministry finds another place for them. “It’s bullshit,” says a 17-year-old resident interviewed off ranch property and without the Rislings’ knowledge. “I’ve never seen them get physical, but then I’ve never seen them get mad either. I don’t understand why they want to shut someplace down when the kids living here are telling them it’s the best place ever.”

Interviews with more than a dozen current and former foster parents in the same area produced strikingly consistent accounts of excessive zeal and heavy-handed tactics on the part of ministry offi-

cials. “They are rude, they bully people,” says one foster parent, Jeff Tribble. “I don’t intimidate easy, but I was intimidated,” asserts another parent who, like most others, asked not to be identified, citing fear the ministry would remove the children who remain in her home. Several parents who have come under investigation say ministry staff threatened to retaliate if they sought legal counsel. We were going to get a lawyer,” one parent told Maclean’s. “They said, ‘That’s your right, but if you do that, we’ll have to pull the other kids.’ ” Spokesmen for the ministry deny some of the parents’ charges. Rick Childerhose, executive director of the ministry’s operations in the Oliver area, told Maclean’s it is “fundamental to our work” for social workers to give greater weight to a youth’s word than an adult’s. His boss, Victoria-based Ross Dawson, director of child protection for British Columbia, insists it is not policy to discourage foster parents from seeking legal counsel, but adds he is “not concerned” if that is happening. Dawson also defends the practice of retaining a record of unsubstantiated or disproven allegations in foster home files, and agrees that in some cases, such allegations “could be” used to justify closing a home. Dawson insists, however, that the complaints in the South Okanagan are rare. “The majority of our relationships with foster parents are very good,” he says.

Perhaps. But Kay Dahl, a foster parent from Campbell River on Vancouver Island, says she has heard similar complaints against the ministry. Dahl heads the B.C. Federation of Foster Parent Associations, which represents approximately 2,550 parents across the province. Choosing her words with diplomatic care, she lays some of the blame on ministry policies “developed by people who are, and have for some time been, removed from the reality of child care,” and some on inexperienced and overburdened social workers “who don’t have a clue about kids and don’t know that some kids will say whatever they think they need to say to get what they want.” But Dahl also considers some of the ministry’s insistence on high standards of foster parenting to be reasonable: We are dealing with children who have been abused and neglected; our homes have to be at a higher level, or why not leave them where they are?”

Dahl and Dawson both hope a new chapter will open in relations between foster parents and the ministry later this month. That is when a new protocol comes into force, one that both sides have agreed on to govern how the homes can be investigated. After successfully winning a three-month extension of their facility’s approval, Cara and Lloyd Risling may learn their ultimate fate this week, when Dawson says he expects to release the results of a review of the allegations lodged against them. In her hair salon, Monica Nemes shakes her head and worries about the kids who may no longer be able to find a new life at the ranch. “Those kids are going to end up on the streets doing break-and-enters,” she sighs. “It’s stupid.” □