Michelle Bell Special to the Citizen
To see youth experiencing homelessness and addictions in our own community is very upsetting.
Located between to major cities, the Cowichan Valley has been under-resourced and unable to provide services for our most marginalized youth such as a youth shelter, needle exchange, treatment beds and outreach. The good news is that many of the Cowichan Valley youth service providers have been meeting monthly and are getting services in place to help to deal with this emerging “problem”.
However, homelessness, addictions, and sexual exploitation are complex issues and generally “symptoms” of a problem, rather than the actual problem. It is vital that we use a holistic approach to address homelessness and its surrounding issues.
What we find in our work is that trauma doesn’t discriminate. We service youth that come from homes of love, financial security, professional careers, and strong social supports and we also provide services for youth that come from homes of poverty, substance abuse, violence and social isolation. It turns out that individual and family struggles are universal problems. Therefore Community Options Society uses a trauma-informed perspective to reveal the true reasons for suffering and then support youth and their families in a healing process.
Fifteen-year-old Stephanie (Identifying details have been changed to maintain confidentiality):
Her mom is a bookkeeper and her dad works in the forest industry. She is an older sister to her 10-year-old brother. Stephanie grew up adoring horses, taking riding lessons and spending her time playing in the fields. Up until she was 12 years old, she was connected to positive friends, she was active and she was engaged in her school. And then sometime around her 13th birthday, Stephanie started pulling away from her parents. She started spending time with a different group of friends and she began dating a 16-year-old guy.
Her parents responded much like any of us would; they would plead with her to follow the rules and held strong limits. They scheduled family time, and mother-daughter dates. But all of their efforts were met with anger and aggression. Stephanie would kick and push her mom during raging fights. She would run away from home and stay with her boyfriend. Until one day, she stopped coming home.
Stephanie spent an entire summer living with her boyfriend in a trailer, using methamphetamine. She chose to live in a rundown shack over living in the comfort of her family home. Her parents were unable to convince her to come back.
Social services were called; the community immediately blamed the parents.
One day Community Options Society received a referral from MCFD [Ministry of Children and Family Development] for Stephanie, “a 15 year old female, using methamphetamine daily, barely attending school, and hadn’t been home for over two weeks, very high risk, but not a current protection concern under the MCFD mandate because she has a safe home to return to.” (There is no legal process to detain youth).
A counsellor arranged with the school to pick her up and took her out for something warm to eat because she had made it very clear there was no way she was going to any “counselling sessions”. She was frazzled, paranoid and anxious. As she ate her food, and became more comfortable, she began to share her struggle.
When she was 12 years old her dad had had an affair and left her mom to marry his lover. She had always felt most connected to her dad and when he left, the little girl in her felt abandoned and betrayed.
Trying to make sense of these changes in her life, she started spending more time with a girlfriend who introduced her to some older friends. One day, she and her friends decided to try marijuana. She loved how being with her friends and smoking pot had her feeling.
When her group of girlfriends found out she started smoking pot, they refused to spend time with her. Now, at school, she didn’t have any friends.
At home, her mother was falling into a depression, coping with the loss of her marriage. And her father was building a new life with his partner and her children.
Stephanie met a 16-year-old guy who made her feel important and cherished. When she was with him she felt seen and truly understood. But he was actively using methamphetamine, and one day he offered her some. She had seen how angry he got while using and was afraid to try it.
But she really wanted to connect with him and she saw this as a way for them to be closer. It wasn’t long before Stephanie loved using methamphetamine. She felt powerful, fully in control and happy.
Until one day her boyfriend, in a meth-induced rage, was violent with her and she fled in fear of her life. For the next six months she was pulled in and out of the relationship with him and endured physical and sexual abuse. She began making friends with other girls that were also using methamphetamine. Together they formed a little clique where they all felt a sense of belonging. They spent time every day applying their make-up, like armour for the day of war ahead of them, because outside their group, they were judged by others.
She was no longer clear on how to get out.
With unconditional support, the COS counsellor helped her reveal her deepest fears and supported reconnecting her to her own truth.
Over the next six months she showed up fiercely, in all her pain and in all her hopes. She discovered that what she had first written off as an overactive imagination was actually early signs of mental illness. The counsellor was able to engage her dad in support services. Stephanie shared her feelings of abandonment with her dad. Her dad apologized for how she experienced his choices and recommitted to being her support for the rest of her life.
She allowed her mom to cradle her as she processed all the violence and the trauma she had experienced while away from home.
Stephanie found her balance once again. She discovered ways she could connect with people without using substances. She rekindled old friendships. Stephanie started spending more time with her dad and moved back in with her mom.
The counsellor was able to support her at school, and her school was able to see a struggling girl not a rebellious youth and offered her help rather than punishment.
(written by Scarlet Jaxson, LRP program manager, COS)
How can you help? Support local non-profits that provide services to youth and their families. Pressure the province to keep providing adequate financial resources to those agencies supporting and caring for our children and youth. It is only through provincial funding and community donations that we can continue to ensure teens have support from healthy adults and mentors, and safe places to explore what’s causing their distress and to learn how to cope in ways that are healthy.
And don’t let youth like Stephanie fall through the cracks. If you see a youth or family struggling, help them get the support they need. You can save them a lifetime of trauma if they get help, before they are homeless and using drugs behind the dike.
Michelle Bell is the executive director of the Community Options Society