CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 14 . . . . March 2, 2007
Wards of the Crown: Surviving the Child Welfare System.
Andrée Cazabon (Writer/Director).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2005.
40 min., 20 sec., VHS & DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: E9305 174.
Foster home care-Canada.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Review by Frank Loreto.
I recall, years ago, hearing someone comment that the foster care system in Canada is a disaster. Looks like nothing much has changed over the years. In Wards of the Crown, Andrée Cazabon presents 10 months in the lives of four young victims of the foster-care system. This is a gut-wrenching film, and viewers should be prepared to be moved and angered by the stories.
Cazabon, herself once in foster care for a short time, cares deeply about this subject. She presents the action from the four viewpoints with further commentary by those working in the system. The stories are told chronologically juxtaposed against each other. Each speaker's story is different; each one is in many ways the same.
We meet Leaha first. Her mother gave her up to Children's Aid when Leaha was 12. She has already spent two years on the street. She was into prostitution and is now at a homeless shelter. It is Christmas Eve, and, at 16, all she really wants in the way of presents is to be reunited with her mother whom she has not seen for nine months. Leaha has a grade six education and no job prospects. However, each time Leaha is presented, she is filled with hope and convinced that her life is going to be okay. In the next segment, she has been reunited with her mother after surprising her with a visit. She and the mother are preparing to go to court to have Leaha removed from the system. Ever since they have been together, Leaha states that, "It's been good." They are successful, and the court reunites them. Leaha's mother regard for the Children's Aid Society is clear: "If she'd pulled some of the things that CAS pulled, she'd be in jail for neglect so fast it will make their heads spin." The court victory has its cost. In Ontario, a 16-year-old can legally sign him or herself out of the system, as Leaha has, but once gone, can never return. However, at this point in the film, Leaha faces the future with, "not a worry in the world." She plans to start school and is quite excited; however, when we next see her, we learn that, while she registered for school in January, by May, she had not attended. She and her mother disappeared for a while. She talks about her mother's crack cocaine use at home and how she is often tempted to join her, not for the cocaine, but for something to have in common with her mother. A social worker commenting on Leaha's story is not surprised. Leaha was beaten by her father, and her mother, who should have stepped in, abandoned the children. Then Leaha was molested by her father. She states that, after the mother left, Leaha's father took his anger at his wife's leaving out on Leaha. The relationship that she wanted with her mother deteriorates to the point where they physically attacked each other. Leaha called the police and spent a few weeks sleeping in a park. The two manage to patch things up, and Leaha once again "Can't wait to go back to school!" As before, the plans do not work out. She does not go to school; her mother blames her for her crack use, and the two fight constantly. Leaha, who at the beginning of the film longs to be with her mother, now states, "I hate being at home." Following her miscarriage, she expressed great sorrow. The baby would have been a source of hope and love, and, with a child, she could access CAS once again.
Chantal, 20, has been in foster care since she was two years old. In her eighth foster home, six-year-old Chantal thought she had finally found a family which would give her the stability she so desperately needed. She was happy during that period, but four years later, the family announced that they would no longer be looking after her. When recalling this time, Chantal tearfully admits, "I loved them very much and it hurt me." She went on to seven more placements after. She thought that she was the problem. In a group home at 12, she reveals that it is not the same as being with a family. There, people would care about if you do your homework or offer help. In a group home, the best you can expect is to get the staff to treat you like a favorite, but, she admits, "they don't stay long. Most of the time, they are trainees. This is just a work experience." She feels like CAS did not care about her: "I felt like a little dog tossed from place to place. But even a dog would not be put in so many houses." Now in her 15th placement, Chantal has been with a caring family for two years. She credits them for getting her through high school graduation. However, Cazabon states that Chantal could no longer love or trust a family. While her life seems to be coming together, Chantal wonders if she will ever be able to love anyone or even love herself, "That's my biggest question." Once again, the social worker states with frustration that Chantal's story is not unique.
Andrew, at 17, is checking out of his nineteenth residence. Having been in the system since he was 1 ½, he wants to make it on his own. Andrew has been keeping track of his moves in a journal and shows that, in the past year alone, he has moved eight times. When Andrew was a baby, his mother attempted suicide. In foster care, Andrew was deemed a demanding child. He wanted to be held all the time. His new place is a room in his sister's house, and he shows it off quite proudly. He states that he should be getting a real bed soon, but for now he uses a lawn chair with a mattress on top. No matter. Being out of the group home is the first step to having a life. Andrew admits to being difficult. At one point, no group home would take him, and so he spent a month at the Salvation Army shelter. Unfortunately, things do not work out with his sister, and he is shown packing. "Here we go again," he shrugs. Andrew finds an apartment, but, because he was not in school or working, he loses his CAS support and then loses the apartment too. At the end of the film, Andrew is living with a 40-year-old man, "with strings attached."
At 18, Emily is still working on her high school diploma. At 11, she and her father were doing drugs together. Her mother brought her to CAS when she was 13, and that was the last time she lived with her parents or her twin sister. She remembers smoking with her father outside the school. She thought then that "we were the cool family." Emily seems like she has not been too damaged by the system until she takes viewers to a group home that she particularly liked four years ago. She shows the closet where she would sit every night "to think." She describes the group home as her worst fear: strangers in and out, no mom or dad. You "sit in your closet and bang your head, and maybe someone will ask you what's wrong. Maybe they'll restrain you, whatever—a hug's a hug." She states that she went five years without a hug. "Any sign of affection would have been welcomed, but love is inappropriate in a group home." Emily was banned from a shelter from overdosing there once. She shows a bridge under which she spent some time. She says, "the only people who care are men, and so what if what you do is wrong; it makes you feel alive—hoping they care." She admits afterwards, more disappointment follows. Emily is shown talking to a social worker who points out that she has had 28 moves in four years. Prone to self-mutilation, she was moved frequently and ultimately wound up in the psychiatric ward of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario. "Nobody has time for cutters; nobody has time for suicidal 13-year-old kids. Institutions don't care what's going on inside you—in your heart—only with your brain and some chemical imbalance you have. So many scientific answers for anything. What better medicine than love?" At the end of the film, Emily is living with her boyfriend who, as she states, "is a lot older" than she is. CAS agrees to this as long as he is able to keep her off drugs and alcohol and watch over her—as Emily says, "like a kid."
Wards of the Crown is a heartbreaking view of four lives and of a broken system. The film states, "All children should have the right to expect stability and a place to belong." The social workers in the film agree, but their frustration is clear. With 66,000 children in the child welfare system, there is clearly something wrong with the status quo. The answer should be simple, but clearly it is not.
This film could be used in a Parenting class, or Law, Civics, Social Justice. It should also be required viewing for teachers who most likely have CAS wards in their classes. Great possibility for a professional development activity.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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