Special Report

The Anguish of the STREET

Shanda Deziel,Brenda Branswell August 23 1999
Special Report

The Anguish of the STREET

Shanda Deziel,Brenda Branswell August 23 1999

The Anguish of the STREET

Special Report

Shanda Deziel

Amy, a slender girl with big, dark eyes and dyed-blond hair, sits in a conference room in her Toronto-area group home on the day of her Grade 8 graduation. She says she plans to become a criminal lawyer someday, but she has a few problems to work through before that happens. In the past year, the now-14-year-old has run away from her mothers house and outside care facilities more than 30 times. She befriended strangers on the street, slept in flophouses, was found unconscious in a park after an alcohol overdose and once attempted suicide by ingesting a bottle of over-thecounter painkillers. Making matters worse, Amy, who asked that her own and her mothers names not be used, has cystic fibrosis, an illness that, while terminal, can be mitigated by

daily medication and a healthy lifestyle. Amy says she ought to stop running, quit smoking, take her medications and obey the rules at home. But she says she likes life on the lam. “I felt fine without my medication,” she insists. “I hung out at friends’ houses, went to parties, drank, just had fun.”

None of this sounds like fun to Amy’s mother, 38-year-old Barb. Sitting in the living room of her comfortable Toronto home, she draws on a cigarette and recounts the changes in Amy’s behaviour over the past year. It began after Barb, Amy and her eight-year-old brother moved in with Barb’s longtime boyfriend and his two grown children. “She was not very happy about the rules and wanted to have a lot of freedom,” recalls Barb. Amy began acting out, and last October, after being grounded, she snuck out the downstairs window and disappeared for more than a day. That soon became Amy’s

There are thousands of runaway kids across Canada. Most are escaping abuse or neglect, but sometimes it’s the parents who feel the pain

answer to all conflict. After an argument, she would swear at her mom and walk out the front door, only to show up days or even weeks later, sometimes in the custody of the police.

Barb had no way of knowing where her daughter would go each time, or if Amy was taking her medication. What she did find out while repeatedly trying to bring her daughter back home was that Amy is among a record number of runaways in Canada. Police departments across the country received 48,388 calls about runaways last year, up 2,861 from 1997 and 8,015 from 10 years ago. Most runaways take off in summer: many rural and suburban kids simply head to the nearest city, but some kids on the East Coast set off for British Columbia. “No matter how much we try to stop it or prevent it, it still happens,” says Pascale Hough of Operation Go Home, a national organization based in Ottawa that helps street youth reunite with their families. “It is a very big problem.”

Experts say most kids are running away from abusive households, and child-protection laws are drafted to shield those kids from further harm. “I see over 1,000 kids a year,” says Tim Crooks, a Halifax youth program worker, “and it is seldom that they are out for the experience of it all. They come to us as a result of horrific experiences.” But some kids do run away from caring, non-abusive homes, and when that happens, childprotection laws can prevent concerned parents from regaining custody. Police routinely have to tell parents that, even when they know where the runaway child is, there is nothing they can do. “Basically our hands are handcuffed and chained to a ball, which is encased in cement at the bottom of the proverbial lake,” says Staff Sgt. Doug MacKay-Dunn of the Vancouver police, who has worked with street kids for 28 years.

The problems do not end there. Police and parents across the country lament that there are too few resources to house runaways. In Toronto, for instance, there is a strong network of facilities and care workers to help the homeless, but officials at the city’s Children’s Aid Society say there are not enough places to house the 10to 15-per-cent increase in youth they have seen each year. “We have trouble getting and keeping kids off the street,” says Bruce Rivers, the CAS executive director. “Right now, there is a tremendous shortage of residential beds.” It is particularly difficult to find facilities for 16to 18-year-olds, who in some provinces do not qualify for assistance as “children,”

yet are too young to collect welfare. “They slip through the cracks,” says Crooks.

Even when group homes and counselling programs have available spaces, the kids have to meet certain criteria—many government-funded facilities only admit kids who have serious psychological problems or have committed crimes. “Your child has to be a paranoid schizophrenic or a murderer in order to get help,” says one exasperated parent.

The laws that govern child welfare vary from province to province, but they uniformly restrict what police and social agencies can do to take adolescents off the street, return them home or confine them in order to protea them from themselves or others. In Ontario, for instance, police need a warrant of apprehension for children under 16 and can do nothing for those over that age. In British Columbia, police and social workers can speak with street kids to assess their risk, but after that, MacKay-Dunn says, “if they want to walk, they’ll walk.” In several provinces, kids can be placed in a secure facility, but only when they have been deemed serious risks to themselves.

Federally, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures that children have a large say in their own lives and any treatment necessary. And once they have become streetwise, kids know their rights and how to make them work. It only took Amy a couple of runs before she knew she didn’t have to get into the police car and go home. Once when she was being held at a locked psychiatric facility in Toronto, she retained legal counsel and went before a panel to argue why she didn’t belong there. “Amy is far ahead of the system,” Barb says. “Each time we begin to catch up with her, she foils us again.”

Runaways Rusty and Paul say they are regularly hassled by police, but they know no one can stop them from living on the street in downtown Toronto. And they also know police are undermanned—Toronto has more homeless kids than any other city in Canada, with estimates running as high as 10,000 to 12,000 at any given time. Over a breakfast of pancakes at a Yonge Street diner, Rusty and Paul say they ended up on the street the usual way—by escaping dysfunctional homes. Rusty, a rail-thin 17-year-old who says he never takes off his in-line skates, was 13 when his mother dropped him off at his father’s house and left town. When his dad came home that night, he told the boy to go away.

That left Rusty on the street for three months, until one winter night he was so cold he called the operator

Special Report

Street-smart kids know how to exercise their rights because, by law, no one can stop them from living on the street

from a pay phone and asked for help. He spent the next three years in the custody of childrens aid, and several months ago, he used his legal right to sign himself out of the home, opting to live on the streets. Now he sleeps in stairwells and parks, and spends his days selling pot and squeegeeing. “On the street, I feel I’m doing something, making a stand, not wasting away in a room peeking out of a crack of a window,” he says. He claims he can make $300 a day squeegeeing and, while he is trying to save his money for an apartment, Rusty admits that a lot of it goes to drugs.

Paul, meanwhile, ran from a physically abusive father and has been on the street since he was 14. He has also been sent to juvenile detention three times after being caught breaking and entering. “I will stay on the streets until I find something that is just right,” says the 19-year-old, whose youthful smile reveals cracked and missing teeth. “Rusty thinks I am too much of a dreamer, but I just envision the perfect life and I don’t want to setde for anything less.” One of his dreams is a road trip to Arizona with their savings. Paul admits he has grown weary of living without a roof over his head, particularly the mornings being rousted from make-do quarters by police. But Rusty says he enjoys the camaraderie of the street. “Between six and 10 at night,” he says enthusiastically, “everyone is out, just having fun.”

For one chronic runner in Quebec, the lure of the streets is more powerful than a court order. Cat, a bleary-eyed 17-yearold, says a judge ordered her to live with her mother north of Montreal until she turned 18, and to stay away from the city for a year. But Cat left home again recendy and now spends some nights at Montreal’s Le Bon Dieu dans la Rue, an overnight shelter for street kids, and others in a park. She says she doesn’t need much money to live on and can go two or

three days without eating. She, too, does squeegee work and also panhandles. At 16, when she was shooting drugs, Cat resorted to giving men oral sex for money. She charged $40 each time, but says she stopped after two months, unable to keep doing it. Since then, she has warned other female runaways to stay away from prostitution.

Born to a teenage mother and an alcoholic father, Cat ran away at 13 after, among other things, she says she was sexually abused by her grandparents. “There were always conflicts,” says Cat. She says she and her mother are “two hard-headed” people. When she was younger, they clashed over issues such as her mother setting limits on how late she could stay out. Now, she says, the conflicts revolve around things such as her drug use—Cat says she continues to use cocaine, mescaline and crack.

As horrifying as home life is for some kids, the street can be just as mean. According to a survey by Operation Go Home, 69 per cent of runaways use drugs, another 69 per cent consider suicide, 33 per cent have prostituted for money and 20 per cent say they have exchanged sex for shelter. Those statistics add to Barb’s anxiety, even though Amy has been in the custody of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society since January. After all, Amy has run from group homes, too, and when that happens, Barb only hears about it secondhand. “Amy is a kid who still sleeps with stuffed animals,” Barb says sadly. “It is miserable running with a backpack, not showering, not eating regularly, to not know where you’ll stay. I want her home.”

Diane Sowden of Coquitlam, B.C., knows the feeling. Her daughter Catherine was recruited by pimps at age 13 to work in the sex trade, and over the next six years Sowden and her husband would occasionally see their daughter on the street and “she would smile and wave.” “Once,” says a incredulous Sowden, “my husband grabbed her and forcibly tried to take her home. We were told by the police if we did it again, we would be in trouble. You cannot hold children against their will.”

Sowden sees the necessity of laws that protect abused kids from the horrors at home. But in her case, the laws worked the other way. She and her husband could not keep Catherine from spending the next six years living on the street, addicted to crack cocaine and then heroin, prostituting herself and producing two crack-addicted babies. The babies have since been placed in a safe home, and Sowden says that Catherine, now 19, has left the province, kicked her dmg habit, found a job and is getting back on her feet.

Having found little or no help from existing programs,

Sowden has taken matters into her own hands. She formed the Children of the Street Society, a community group that lobbies governments for changes in legislation that will confront child prostitution, a problem of epidemic proportions in British Columbia. Those pleas have been heard—the subject was on the agenda last week at the premiers’ conference in Quebec City. Officials in Vancouver estimate there are dozens of kids selling sex on the streets on any given night. “It is frightening how quickly kids can be recruited, often right out of their schools,” says Vancouver’s MacKay-Dunn. Sowden’s group is petitioning to have the legal age of consent raised higher than 14, where it currently stands. She also participated in the Secure Care Working Group commissioned by British Columbia’s ministry for children and families to look at the option of locking high-risk children up against their wishes.

Amy’s mom, Barb, has found some solace in another community group, the privately funded Parents for Youth, which

Some people become SO frustrated by their kids’ behaviour and the lack of recourse that they take drastic action

offers therapy for parents of out-of-control adolescents. “These kids make parents sick, they break up marriages, parents lose their jobs, they are all-consuming,” says Meg Thompson, the facilitator of Barb’s group. Parents for Youth focuses on the needs of parents first and Thompson counsels parents to set strict guidelines instead of compromising with stubborn kids.

Barb says she is also trying to detach herself emotionally, but she cannot stop worrying about Amy’s health. With good reason: Miriam Kaufmgn, a pediatrician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto who specializes in teenagers with chronic illnesses and disabilities, says street life is especially dangerous for children with cystic fibrosis. They require various medications and regular chest physiotherapy to relieve the congestion in their lungs—congestion that, left:

untreated, breeds infections that can cause death. Add to that the irregular sleep, bad diet, smoking, booze and drugs that go with street life, Kaufman says, and Amy is “seriously jeopardizing her chances of getting into her 20s.”

Some parents become so frustrated by their children’s behaviour and the lack of institutional recourse that they take drastic action. Manitobans Bob and Mary Smith, who asked that their real names not be used, say they exhausted all local options to help regain custody of their daughter, who began running away when she was 14. She spent a year in foster homes, group homes, adolescent treatment centres and psychiatric lockups, and still she ran.

The Smiths turned to a private treatment centre in the southwestern United States. There, their daughter was taken to a locked facility and then enrolled in a tough wilderness education course. She and other kids were housed in a motel under 24-hour surveillance for a week of detoxification, during which time they were monitored for drug levels. Then they were sent into the wilderness for a month in groups of six, accompanied by six staff, to test themselves against the elements. As a team, they had to push a 360-kg cart filled with all their personal belongings across a desert. They ate only vegetarian food with utensils made out of found pieces of wood. They performed a series of daunting but safe physical challenges such as rock-climbing and rappelling.

All the while there was intensive group therapy and a lot of individual counselling, and back at the treatment centre, the parents went through counselling, too. For the Smiths and their daughter, the treatment, which lasted nine months, worked. Their daughter has been home for a year, drug-free, and is a changed person. The Smiths, who paid $ 100,000 for

the treatment, say it was worth every cent. “We are grateful for every day that she is with us and never take it for granted that she is at home,” Mary says. “We owe our daughter’s life and our family’s health to the facility.”

If she had the money, Barb says she would opt for boot camp, too. That’s because Amy, after four months in a group home in western Ontario, recently disappeared for five days after being allowed an unsupervised walk for good behaviour. She did return, but no one knows for how long, and Barb wonders when—or even if—her daughter will ever come home again. Amy wonders herself. “I do want to go home,” she says. “I just need to work out all the stuff that is going on in my life.” Until she does, her mother will wait, and worry.

With Brenda Branswell in Montreal

Brenda Branswell