In September of 2015, at the age of eighteen, Alex Gervais took his own life. By that time, he had lived in seventeen different foster placements and been under the care of twenty-three different social workers and caregivers since age four. What followed was a report, “Broken Promises: Alex’s Story,” by British Columbia’s Representative for Children and Youth, which arrived at the stark conclusion that “Alex’s death was a predictable outcome of his journey through the child welfare system” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p.35). The reasons that system failed Alex are, as outlined by the report, many. For the purposes of this analysis I would like to focus on two: the failure to find a permanent placement for Alex, and the failure to provide oversight over the agencies contracted out with his care. I contend that these reasons in particular can ultimately be traced back to a more fundamental issue: that government employees had a strong and perverse incentive to take a hands-off approach to Alex’s care. The effects of this incentive are most plainly seen in the decision not to pursue a permanent placement with Alex’s stepmother, which I will discuss at length.
I will then proceed to examine how that incentive was at the root of failings identified by the Representative for Children and Youth (RCY), specifically in the areas of permanency and oversight. To fully understand what incentives were at play it is important that we first make note of the government environment in which Alex’s case was managed. As is called for by law, and as we can intuitively understand, the mandate of the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) is to seek, for all children in care, “a permanent connection to a significant person … who can provide children with the stability and continuity they need to develop into healthy, secure adults” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p.
3). The RCY’s report makes clear, however, that for staff at the MCFD, neither permanency, continuity, nor stability were first priority. Social workers describe an understaffed ministry plagued by “the tyranny of the urgent” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 36), where child protection files tended to take precedence over longterm planning for children already in care.
Indeed, when in 2010 Alex’s file was transferred from the MCFD to the regional Delegated Aboriginal Authority (DAA), his new social worker “had a caseload of between 30 and 35 children and youth to manage, many of them high-risk young women” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 38). Alex, whose living situation at the time was comparatively stable next to these highly urgent cases, was not a priority. This same dynamic continued throughout Alex’s time in government care. This public management environment played a crucial role in what was perhaps the most dumbfounding, and indeed tragic, episode in Alex’s time under the protection of the child welfare system. Alex and his stepmother had expressed a consistent and mutual desire to be reunited.
In August 2006, Alex—nine years old and having, by that point, lived in a total of nine different placements—was placed with his stepmother, a person familiar to him and whom he deeply cared for. This was likely the most promising opportunity for Alex to have a permanent home. And yet it appears that the MCFD made Alex’s placement with his stepmother untenable. Provided with less than one-sixth of the financial support given to Alex’s previous foster home, denied respite care time and again, and with repeated delays to a home study that would have opened up funding for additional supports, Alex’s stepmother was struggling (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017).
Yet her requests for help seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Correspondence between MCFD social workers reveals that they found the stepmother’s requests “unreasonably demanding” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 13) and began looking for another placement for Alex with a contracted residential agency. As we examine what motives were behind this decision to place Alex with a contracted resource—rather than work to make this rare opportunity for permanency a reality—it should first be noted that the decision was not intended as a cost-saving measure.
An MCFD working group later found that contracted resources came at a “cost almost nine times greater than a regular or restricted foster placement” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 44). In Alex’s final placement, the DAA had contracted with a caregiver “at an exorbitant rate more than 11 times what MCFD had offered to the stepmother years earlier” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 4). There were, then, other incentives at play. It appears that MCFD staff saw their relationship with contractors as fundamentally different from the relationship they had with foster parents.
In contrast to the close cooperation with and regular supervision of foster parents, social workers were of the view that placing a child with a contracted resource allowed the ministry to take a more distanced role in the child’s care. As one social worker put it: “We had, like a hands off approach to the contractors…they’re a business…We buy the service …, but we don’t hand hold them and we don’t provide support to their staff” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 20). In Alex’s case, after he was placed at a contracted agency, his MCFD social worker felt that “her role had changed and she would be able to take a more ‘hands off’ approach with Alex’s guardianship” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p.
20). I contend that this attitude towards contracted resources was at the root of the public management collapse in Alex’s case. Social workers—overwhelmed and overworked, as outlined above—had a strong incentive to prefer placements with contracted residential agencies, which would allow them to take a less involved role in a child’s care, over foster placements. For Alex, this came at the sacrifice of much-needed stability and resulted in the separation from someone he knew and cared for, with tragic consequences. The RCY’s report identifies a number of public management failures in Alex’s case, in particular in the areas of permanency and oversight. It should at this point be clear what effect the incentive to place Alex with a contracted resource had on establishing any sense of permanency for him. After the placement with his stepmother, which was three months in length, no other opportunities for a permanent placement were ever pursued.
Alex would go on to live in seven more placements until his death, two of which were at hotels. However, that incentive to take a hands-off approach to Alex’s care also lies at the root of other areas of failure identified by the RCY. This is most obviously the case with the government’s failure to provide proper oversight over the contracted residential agencies with which Alex was placed. According to government workers, their relationship with contractors was that between a customer and business. Predictably, given this dynamic, this meant that there was no close oversight over how that business was operating. The report notes, “social workers took little or no action to fulfill their mandated oversight and monitoring responsibilities.
Instead, they took a hands-off approach to addressing concerns because the contracted agency was a private, ‘arm’s-length’ business” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 43). In Alex’s case, there was no oversight of or investigation into how funds provided by the government for his food and clothing were being spent, despite his repeated complaints that this money was being siphoned off by caregivers.
Indeed, records of meals being prepared for Alex between 2010 and 2014 suggest that less than half of his allotted food budget actually went towards food (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017). Perhaps more tragically, this misuse of funds left Alex with the deep feeling that he was being used by his own caregivers. A little over a week before he took his life, Alex wrote, “In there sic eyes I’m a … contract” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 34). I have argued that one of the primary reasons for the public management collapse in Alex’s case was a perverse incentive: that a number of factors, namely a high caseload and the nature of the government-contractor relationship, encouraged social workers to take a more hands-off approach to Alex’s care by placing him with a contracted resource. This is most plainly seen in the failure to pursue a promising placement with his stepmother.
That move came at the cost of a permanent home for Alex and led to a level of oversight far below what he needed and indeed, what the law requires. What lessons, then, can be learned from this case? In their final recommendations, the RCY seeks to address the conditions that gave rise to the incentive I have discussed. They write that the MCFD must recognize “that supporting … family placements requires not just funding but also significant levels of social worker engagement and planning,” and further, that social workers must be “provided with the additional time and resources necessary to avoid, whenever possible, a child or youth moving into the care of a contracted agency” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 54). To address issues of oversight that arise out of the government-contractor relationship, the RCY suggests that additional resources also be allocated “to significantly enhance the provision of quality assurance oversight and financial accountability for all contracted residential agencies” (Representative for Children and Youth, 2017, p. 56).
No amount of funding, however, eliminates the incentive outright. The option for the BC government to contract out children’s wellbeing remains. One cannot help but worry that should the additional resources recommended by the RCY someday be diminished under budgetary pressure, or even should those resources fail to be allocated in the first place, that social workers will again resort to contracted agencies over family placements to ease the pressure of their caseloads and duties of oversight, and that there may again, sometime soon, be another story like Alex’s.