The story that inspired "Butterflies in the System"
*Trigger warning: this post contains
discussion on emotional and sexual violence.
Ripped jeans, tassels, leather jacket, drugs, sex, and metal is what often comes to mind when we speak of 'teen rebels' in the age of Stevie Nicks, Pink Floyd, and Metallica. So-called 'rebels without a cause' linger on the fringe of society, sometimes forcing us to question ourselves but often falling through the cracks, as we sweep them under the rug and out of sight, their presence rattling us so. I was one of these rebels and I can assure you, there is always a cause.
In the summer of 1990, I had just been admitted into Montreal's youth protection system and I stood on the steps of Snowden Shelter, looking at the big wooden door of what would be my home for the next few months, wondering if the childcare workers would notice my dilated pupils. I was 16, but my path into the system had begun a few years earlier.
More curious than scared, I entered the shelter with hope.
Similar to other system kids, my path towards the system began with trauma. Just before my 14th birthday, I lost my virginity to rape. From then onwards, a series of related events added to my trauma, which turned me from a studious (and relatively nerdy) kid into an angry drop-out rebel. Lack of resources and mental health support was at the heart of it all. As I entered youth protection, and was welcomed by two exceptionally committed childcare workers, I hoped that I'd finally found the help I needed. Although Ross and James were awesome workers, what I discovered was a youth protection system that was generally disorganized, under-funded, and often unethical in the way they dealt with youth mental health. As a result, system kids' trauma more often than not increased rather than decreased during their stay in youth protection - myself included.
If you ask system alumni what they remember most about their time in youth protection, their response will likely be twofold.
On the one hand, it was a time where bonds were forged with people who shared in similar struggles. When I entered my first placement, I finally found "my people." I was no longer 'just a misfit, without reason or goals'. I was now part of a peer-built support network, a sister/brotherhood, with people who understood where I'd come from, who got me. Perhaps this is also what made Ross and James such great workers - they'd also been there, done that. And that was why they cared so deeply.
On the other hand, time in the system meant dealing with poorly trained staff, absent social workers, no professional mental health support, very questionable disciplinary practices, and no aging-out plan. As a result, being in the system added rather than relieved anxiety, and I almost didn't make it out because of this.
One of my closest system friends, Lyne, described her introduction into a detention centre as absolutely terrifying, as she was locked in a room overnight with a girl who'd been charged with murder. Lyne was only there because she was a repeat runaway. Similarly, a boyfriend of mine (also a repeat runaway) found himself in the highest security unit of a detention centre because of lack of beds in other units. I would visit him occasionally, and on one of these occasions I found him to be strangely withdrawn. He told me about how his anxiety disorder had got the best of him and he'd freaked out at a staff member. The staff responded by locking him in solitary confinement for days - which consists of an empty room with a mattress on the floor. In fact, solitary confinement was not only used as a disciplinary measure, but also as a general tool for control. Kids were often confined in a locked room alone for 3 days upon entry into a detention centre - called "the 3-day induction program" - at which time they could only leave the room for supervised toilet breaks.
My own story has more to do with neglect than being subject to unethical detention tactics. After a couple of months in the shelter, the 'powers that be' conferred and decided to place me in a city group home rather than a detention centre - phew! I remember feeling so lucky (and I was), as most of my friends had been sent "up north" to that scary place where kids were locked in bare rooms alone for days. But the group home staff was nothing like James and Ross, and that together with lack of professional mental health support, caused my mental health to take a dangerous turn for the worse.
Although I didn't have to deal with harsh disciplinary strategies, I did have to deal with a social worker who never showed up and with staff that were poorly trained, which led to a tendency to neglect kids' in their care rather than help them. This, along with untreated PTSD and anxiety from my assault years earlier, pummelled me into a depression that went unrecognized by my social worker or the staff at the group home. I soon lost my job due to my high anxiety, which meant that I was also approaching my discharge date (i.e. my 18th birthday) without a pay cheque to support myself. I tried to get another job, but my anxiety got in the way and I was never kept on past the training period. Being jobless with my 18th approaching and no aging-out plan threw me into a deep depression. A month before I was discharged, I finally gave up. I thought life was pointless, that I'd never succeed and no one cared, that it was all futile, and I attempted suicide. After a few days in hospital, I returned to the group home. The staff briefly asked me how I was doing, and that was that. My suicide attempt was never mentioned and therapy never offered. I aged-out of the system, anxious, depressed and alone, into a world of couch-surfing. And, unfortunately, my story is not unique.
As I conducted interviews for my book with old friends along with new ones on their experiences in youth protection in Montreal, I realized that the problem with youth protection is a systemic one. It is not just about a few kids who had the misfortune of running into one or two problem staff. Rather, every person I spoke with who had spent time in youth protection in Montreal had a story to tell about neglect and unethical practices. So, it is not surprising that a class action lawsuit was recently launched in support of youth protection alumni in Quebec.
Butterflies in the System is a story inspired by true events that brings readers on a journey through a year in the life of five teens (as well as a childcare worker and social worker) as they navigate their way through Montreal's youth protection and detention centres. Full of both adventure and sorrow, I wrote this book to highlight my points above, and to help bring awareness to the importance of mental health resources for youth and the need for systemic change in the youth protection system.
Read chapters 1-4 here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1l-Fo0RY3sOQnBhnkABTr9S-Ti_DeVhzH/view?usp=sharing
Read my interviews with two award winning journalists and an author here:
Victor Malarek - investigative journalist, CTV W5 host, and youth protection alumnus
Erika Tafel - Author of Slave to the Farm and youth protection alumna
Gillian Cosgrove - retired investigative journalist, Montreal Gazette
Butterflies in the System is available worldwide through most online book distributors. Signed copies are available through me, if you happen to be in Golden BC :-)