This is the story of two boys. This is a real story, about real kids, right here in Alberta. Because they’re real kids in vulnerable situations, I’ve changed their names and other identifying information. But their problems are real, and so is their inability to get help from the people who are supposedly there to help them.
First, here’s Brad’s story. We knew Brad for a few years through school connections, but didn’t realize how serious his home situation was until one night when he came to us for help. Brad grew up in a single-parent household with his father. They were not well off, and his father was frustrated with their situation. Unfortunately, he often took out his frustrations on Brad.
To avoid his father’s anger, Brad left home a number of times. From the time he was 14, Brad spent periods of time living on the street, or in a cheap motel whenever he could make money. He had attempted, and nearly succeeded to commit suicide. Brad was going to school, but missed class often. His grades were poor, and he often got into fights with other kids. Those fights often got him suspended.
Brad lived with us for over a year. Over that time, he mostly overcame his addictions. His school attendance became regular. His grades improved to the point where he was getting consistent B’s in courses he was previously failing. His physical and mental health improved.
But then I lost my job, and we couldn’t provide for him anymore. He went home to live with his father. He had been mending their relationship over the previous year, and they were getting along better. Being a year older, more confident, and stronger, he thought he would be safe at home.
Unfortunately, the old patterns started to come back, and Brad left home after a couple of weeks, afraid for his safety. He has been staying with friends since then, moving from couch to couch, but he has no home.
But Brad’s story is not without hope. His new school is helping find programs that may provide him with financial assistance, as long as he can attend classes consistently.
He’s still homeless, but he has hope.
Ian’s story is different from Brad’s, but shares the common thread of homelessness. Ian was born with substance addiction and fetal alcohol syndrome to a mother who lived on the street. After spending the first two years of his life in foster care, he was adopted.
The difficulties Ian was born with caused challenges through his childhood, affecting his schooling and his home life. His parents moved frequently, causing further disruption. He could not work at his grade level, but his schools kept advancing him through the grades to keep him with other kids his age. He wasn’t at any school long enough for them to consistently assess his learning disabilities.
When Ian was ten, his adopted parents separated. He continued to move frequently, living with his mother in British Columbia one year, his father in Alberta the next. Neither parent was equipped to deal with his disabilities, and because he was moving from province to province, he was never provided assistance by provincial child welfare.
Neglect and abuse was a common theme throughout his life.
Whatever Ian did, the response was punishment.
Finally, as a teenager, Ian stayed with his father in Edmonton. His troubles at school continued. He was looked down on by his classmates because he couldn’t do school work at their level, and he got into fights. Whenever he got into trouble at school, his father and stepmother would use physical discipline to punish him. If he skipped school to avoid problems there, he was punished for that too. Whatever Ian did, the response was punishment.
He was even punished for running away from home, so when he ran away at fifteen, he had no intention of going back. He lived with friends for several months until he ended up at our house. It was shortly after Christmas, and COVID-19 restrictions were still several months away. Our kids had several friends staying with them on and off over the holidays, but when school resumed, we told everyone it was time to go home.
That’s when we discovered why Ian didn’t want to go home. We met with his parents and agreed to let Ian stay. The punishments he received at home were only the tip of the iceberg. Whenever something happened at home, Ian always took the blame, with no apologies if he ended up not being at fault. At our meeting, his parents berated him nonstop, the message being that they had given him everything, and he was a terrible person for not showing constant gratitude.
Ian was able to make some progress while living with us. We treated him like a young adult, just like we did with Brad, giving him responsibilities, rewarding him when he met them, and helping him plan how to succeed when he fell short. Unfortunately, his progress in other areas was limited. His father refused to provide his health care number, so we could not take him to a doctor, or get him glasses, which he needed because he was very nearsighted. His school tried to start a full psychological assessment, but his father would not provide authorization.
His parents even refused to give him the clothes he left at home.
In the summer, he managed to contact his mother (his adopted mother; he never knew who his biological mother was). She was able to provide information and authorization for us to talk to his school, and provide his health care number so he could receive medical care. He was placed at a new school where he could receive individual attention, and finally start catching up.
Things were finally starting to look better for Ian when I lost my job, and could no longer afford to support him. Like Brad, Ian is currently couch surfing. He’s still going to school, but his attendance has fallen off because he doesn’t have consistent transportation.
The System that Failed Them
Brad and Ian should have had help. While they were living with their parents, they should have been able to find resources to help them get out of their abusive homes, but advice provided by the Kids “Help” Line is to go to a shelter and seek help from there.
Kids are afraid of shelters. News of drug overdoses, violence, and sexual assault support their fears. There has to be a better way for an abused youth to receive help.
These children and their parents reached out to Children's Services for help and were rejected.
When we took these boys in we reached out to Children's Services, the schools and their parents. We were told repeatedly that the only way to get help for them was to “abandon” them at a youth shelter.
When Brad and Ian were living with us, we supported them financially. Alberta Family Services would not provide assistance, and would not help arrange for a suitable placement because they were considered to be safely housed, even though they had no official standing with us. The situation was essentially extended couch surfing.
When I lost my job, I lost my ability to care for both boys. We had to move into a small apartment because we couldn’t afford to stay in the house. Because of one unexpected change, two boys became homeless.
As of the writing of this essay I do not know where my boys are. I miss them terribly and I’m worried sick about what the future has in store for them.