Hard road after foster care for many kids

Jessica Reid spends time with her six-year-old son Nathanial in their Winnipeg apartment Friday, December 20, 2012. Reid went from foster care to drug addiction to having her son cared for by others before finding a happy ending that she traces back to one loving soul. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Jessica Reid went from foster care to drug addiction to having her son cared for by others before finding a happy ending that she traces back to one loving soul.

Her name was Joan and she was a respite worker who took Reid into her home in Gimli, Man., when she was a scared, lonesome 13-year-old.

"She actually cared," Reid, now 29, said from Winnipeg where she's raising her six-year-old boy, Nathanial, and studying child and youth care at Red River College.

"She'd take me to get my hair cut and take me on trips.

"I want to be that person for somebody else. She was there for me."

Numerous studies show that children raised in foster care face higher risks of homelessness, criminal conviction, mental health issues and addiction.

Child care advocates say a chronic crisis in the foster care system is only worsening as more children enter the system with complex needs and fewer families volunteer to help.

Reid faced major struggles as a young adult, but says the memory of a foster mom who went the extra mile was a moral compass that guided her through the darkest times.

She never knew her biological father. She was just seven years old when her mother left her four children with a boyfriend, Reid said.

Much of her childhood was spent with well-meaning foster parents in homes where she always felt like an awkward guest, never like part of the family, she recalled.

That changed when she moved in with Joan, her husband and two of their children.

"I was very chunky with very low self-esteem. I remember her buying me new clothes. I remember her walking me to my bus stop and talking with me. She got me piano lessons," she said.

"I can still play a little bit."

In the year and a half that Reid lived with Joan, she went from a depressed comfort-eater to a fit, athletic teen with friends and new-found confidence, she said.

"What she did was open my eyes to believe in myself."

Reid then moved back in with her mother, who had worked hard to resolve her own issues and reunite her family. It didn't last long.

Reid said she was overwhelmed with anger about her childhood and soon took off for Selkirk, Man. She worked at a coffee shop and finished Grade 11 before moving to Winnipeg, where she sank into a vortex of crack and crystal meth addiction.

She gave birth prematurely to a daughter who died of a hole in her heart before having her son.

Reid said she gave up drugs during both pregnancies, but was back using crystal meth, as others took care of her 18-month-old son.

"I was crying and crying because I didn't want to be that parent."

Reid battled her addiction and childhood demons over the next two years, and then was together again with her son.

She said her own loving experience in foster care helped her endure the pain.

"I realized, you know what? There are people who care out there."

The story doesn't end so well for many other children, says Halifax youth justice lawyer Chandra Gosine. He has seen a steady rise in the number of kids in foster care coming through his door since he opened his practice in 1983.

Gosine's clients range in age from 12 to 17, and most have either been in foster care or a group home.

"More and more, there are people involved in criminal activity who are in those two levels of care."

He believes abuse, psychological baggage and multiple foster care placements put many children on a road to trouble.

There is little data on how many kids in the youth justice system have been in care, but some children's advocates say the numbers are startling.

Gosine says the law is too often used as a blunt instrument for kids who need help, not a criminal record.

Bob Pringle, head of the Saskatchewan Children's Advocate Office, estimates that up to 90 per cent of adults in the provincial correctional institute would have been in care.

"The reality is that the vast majority of young people in the criminal justice system have been in the care of the ministry and the vast majority of folks in the correctional system have been in foster care," he said.

The justice system is trying to divert such cases out of the courtroom whenever possible.

Const. Richard McDonald, a youth court liaison officer in Halifax, sees hope in the growing use of restorative — rather than punitive —practices in group homes.

"They're exploring the underlying issue of what caused the child to do what he or she did and then they're using restorative practices to try to deal with it," he said, adding that a combination of mental health, education and community resources are part of the program.

"These are kids with huge issues," McDonald said.

Jessica Reid says she's among the lucky ones who made it through a rough childhood with help from a foster family that had a lasting, loving influence.

Today, Reid's own mother is going to Red River College with her as she trains to become a recreational facilitator for seniors.

"It took a lot of healing," Reid said. "Our relationship is much better than it was before.

"She's my best friend."