Dawn, age 17, is an attractive, brash, out-going young woman, cooperative but guarded in the interview. She is the middle of three siblings raised by a single mother in poverty. She fought with her mother and was ‘a little drug addict kid’ from quite a young age. She was sent to live with her father at 12, but came into child welfare care at 13 and became a Crown Ward. She didn’t settle into placement – she claims 42 placements, including in the juvenile justice system – and ‘became her own guardian’ at age 16. When she became independent, she modified her drug use and is settling into school and trying to live safely in the community. She describes how difficult it is to find safe housing and manage financially on student welfare, is appreciative of the support the alternative classroom teacher offers, is realistic about the limitations of help from her peers, and struggles to articulate what is helpful to youth like herself.
FM: Let’s start by you telling me a bit about the family you were raised in—the composition, where, what they did for a living, etc., etc..
My family’s crazy. I didn’t really see my dad. My mom was a maid at a cheap motel so we were poor, broke as well. I have a little brother and a big sister. My sister watched us most of the time. I ended up moving in with my dad when I was 12.
FM: So your dad didn’t live with you when you were a kid?
FM: Okay, so generally what I’m going to do is number the moves you made that mark your decisions about staying where you were raised, or alternately, leaving for more urban settings. Which brings to mind, you didn’t say where, what village, you were raised in?
[A village 20 km from Middletown]. And I lived there with my mom and my sibling until I was 8, and then we moved to the city, the suburbs, just outside of Toronto. And I ended up moving back to [my home town], with my dad, when I was 12.
FM: Okay. Can you talk a bit about what went into the decision to make that move?
It was my mom’s decision because we weren’t getting along. I wasn’t doing anything
FM: Like school?
Yeah. And I fought with her all the time and was a little drug addict kid.
FM: What kind of drugs?
At that point it was just weed and mushrooms and hash and the occasional Ecstasy pill.
FM: Well, not every 12-year-old’s ‘just’: but you were running with a gang that was doing that?
Yeah, I guess so.
FM: And then what?
So my mom sent me to live with my dad. That worked out for about a little less than a year and I went into CAS.
FM: So at age 13?
Yeah, either just before or just after.
FM: Foster home?
For the beginning, then group homes, then back to foster homes, then back to group homes.
FM: And then?
I dunno. I moved out of CAS when I was 16, 42 placements later they decided – I don’t know quite what happened, they just managed to let me go when I turned 16 – we went to court. And I was my own guardian.
FM: So your parents must have agreed to you leaving CAS care?
No, I had nothing to do with them. I was a Crown Ward or whatever, so CAS had control over me.
FM: Did you continue to use drugs pretty heavily during your time in CAS or ...
Yeah. It was when I got out of CAS that I stopped doing it.
FM: Tell me about that.
I dunno, I was just an angry kid I guess. Until I had my own responsibility, I didn’t understand the seriousness of it, I guess.
FM: When you left CAS, what kind of living accommodations did you have and how did you pay for it?
Editor's Note: Dawn's many moves are numbered.
[#1] When I first left CAS I was living at the Middletown shelter when I first left and I ended up moving into this ridiculous crack house. It was just terrible. And I was staying there with my boyfriend of the time, and there were cockroaches everywhere, bedbugs, needles stuck in the wall, just the worst thing in the world.
FM: So I’m going to call this number one, [shelter] to crack house. Did anyone try to dissuade you from making that move?
FM: Would you have listened, if they had?
If I had somewhere else to go, for sure.
FM: What were you using for money?
I was collecting welfare.
FM: And the boyfriend?
FM: And he was a drug user too, I’m thinking?
No, he just smoked weed. So I guess so.
FM: And at this time, what were you doing re drugs?
I turned 16 in September. Over the summer I was doing a lot of cocaine but once I moved on my own, it was maybe a 2-day thing and I stopped like that.
FM: Cold turkey?
FM: How was that? Pretty hard?
It wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be. I was a little rebel, I was just doing it to piss everyone off. I don’t think I even really wanted to, I don’t think.
FM: Very interesting. So not addicted in the physical sense so much as ‘acting out’?
FM: Next move?
So we lived there until Hallowe’en and then we got arrested for whatever we got arrested for and I had to get bail in the morning so then I had to live with my surety, [#2] - so we lived there for about a month, maybe and that was all right.
FM: Lemme ask: Who was your surety? How did you know them?
Honestly it was just a quick thing, a neighbor, a friend’s mom, and I just needed to get out of jail.
FM: Was the boyfriend in jail also?
He got released on a promise to appear. He got arrested but he didn’t get held.
FM: But you did? Why?
I was on a lot of probation orders. He had a mischief and a breach, but I had mischief and 13 probation charges.
FM: Okay. And was he also a juvenile at the time?
No, he was an adult.
FM: Okay, I’m registering that the juvenile got harsher treatment from the system than the adult did… is that what it felt like to you?
Not really, because I’ve had so many chances and I’ve breached probation so many times that I was expecting to get held.
FM: Had you ever been in jail before?
FM: You’re the only participant so far that has this as part of the story, so I’d appreciate anything you’d like to say about that experience, or more generally, the role of the justice system in you making the decision you did…
The justice system!!!! Um, I dunno. O… House in [my home town] is an open custody facility and that’s primarily where I go. They have S… which is a closed facility. But O…, I really like. I like S… too, it’s just… it’s a closed facility.
FM: Lemme swing back a bit. So of the 42 placements in CAS, custody facilities were sprinkled among them?
FM: For what kinds of charges?
Assault charges, theft, fraud, yeah mostly assaults and thefts. And lots of breaches.
FM: Okay, you were saying you liked the staff at O…; …what influence did they have on what was happening with you then?
What influence? Well… I don’t get it.
FM: Well, the thought is that part of the job of staff at juvenile facilities, at least, is to help the young person make some different – better – choices so they can turn their lives around and stay out of jail. And you said you liked them, but did they make any difference in how you were making decisions?
Um, yeah, the last time I went in they did, but that was more because I wanted the help.
FM: Okay, and what got you to the point where you wanted some help?
Well, the last bit I did was just a couple of months ago. I was living on my own and I just realized I can’t be doing this the rest of my life.
FM: I didn’t register how old you are.
FM: So this is fresh history.
FM: Good. So let’s explore as much as you’re willing the thought process that goes into making a change – as precisely as you can describe it. What was the start?
FM: I’m assuming – and maybe wrongly – that the important change is to stop or at least significantly change your drug use, and likely also your behaviour. But maybe I’m wrong…
Honestly, I really stopped for my boyfriend. I thought I knew what I wanted. I was just a kid, you know, like. Yeah, I just wanted that perfect little family at a young age.
FM: You’re losing me again. So are you still with the same guy and are you at some stage in creating a ‘perfect little family’ at the young age of 17?
No. I’m not with him. And no, I’m just doing my own thing. Yeah.
FM: Okay. Here’s how I’m understanding your story. Not much family life as a young kid, turned a bit wild fairly early, mom gave up on you, handed you to dad, he managed for a year, they both bailed and CAS became the one and only parent. You gave them a rough time, and became close friends with the justice system, and at age 16, they all bailed and you were on your own, so a brief stop at [the shelter] and then into an adult life – adult responsibility – with a boyfriend, older, maybe more mature and maybe you hoped he’d take care of you, but not happening, so… and there I lose it. I’m interested in whether or how he was part of the problem or part of the solution as you struggled to live with adult responsibility…. Or who or what else was either helpful or not so helpful in this struggle…
He did help me at first, but really I’ve just done it on my own. We weren’t together for very long and I’ve just been learning as I go.
FM: How? From whom? Learning.
No one, off the top of my head. I’m swinging this one, for sure.
FM: So still feeling alone in the world, nobody’s problem but your own???
FM: So what series of events brought you back to [the shelter] and back into school, I think?
After I got out of jail, I got out Feb 5 of this year and that’s when me and my boyfriend broke up. He got rid of all my stuff when I was in jail, sold all my stuff, screwed me up, I had to start all over again. So since then I’ve lived in 2 different houses. The last one the drugs were starting again so I just got out as quick as I could. And now I’m just trying to move forward again and forget about it all.
FM: What kind of living accommodations are available to you?
I’m on welfare, that’s how I support myself is student welfare. So if you can find a nice room in a house, that’s the best you can get. Otherwise, you’re living in a rooming house with crazy old men.
FM: Just for the record, how much do you get on welfare?
You get $592, somewhere around there, altogether, and $360 of that goes toward your rent but the rest is your street allowance. But there’s no places for $360, they’re mostly $400-450. That leaves you with nothing.
FM: And what does $400-450 get you?
It really depends on the house. You could have a nice room with satellite cable and internet or you could have a small room in a basement. If you’re really lucky, you have a solid friend you can rely on and you get an apartment or something.
FM: Where might you meet a ‘solid friend’?
I dunno. I don’t have any.
FM: When you’re looking to rent a place, how much of your situation do you share?
I try not to share any of it. Just I’m young and I’m in school.
FM: What is the importance of school to you, now – and maybe a bit about your relationship with school through the years.
Last year is the first year I’ve gone to school since grade 6. I dunno, now it’s important for me to have structure and routine in my life, just for my own state of mind, but before it was just…tough.
FM: So do you feel like you’re dreadfully behind educationally, or did you pick up a lot that helps you qualify for alternative diploma, I forget what it’s called. Like are you doing grade 7 work...
No I’m doing high school work. It is a lot harder for me than everyone else but I’m doing it. I have a very supportive school and my teacher is amazing. He helps me all the time. He makes sure I understand what I’m doing and he’ll teach me in every possible way until I understand it. It’s a small class and he does that for everyone.
FM: What is the plan, going forward?
Right now i just want to finish my high school and I’m looking for part-time work as well. Just going to try and have a regular life.
FM: Have you any work history?
Do I have any history? Work, yes. I worked at Subway and a costume store and I’ve done a lot of volunteering through probation, actually the W… Rotary Club, I’ve volunteered doing so many things for them.
FM: How important was volunteering for you, then?
Not important at all: I had a lot of community service hours to work out.
FM: So you didn’t enjoy it or feel like you got any benefit from it?
I enjoyed it, I had fun when I was doing it, but I don’t think I benefitted from it.
FM: But maybe it came as close as anything else to offering structure and some positive connection to regular life?
FM: Did you ever feel that the people you were volunteering for knew or cared about you as a person, or were they just getting their work done for them?
Well, my grandma is in the W… Rotary Club so that’s where I got involved. And she was mostly with me, and I just did what she said to do and minded my own business.
FM: Okay, grandma. How much of a role has she played in your life, over the years?
I dunno, she’s just my grandma. They’re not really, like, supportive I guess. They just give me presents on holidays.
FM: Well, more than your folks?
FM: Do you have any contact with your sibs?
Yeah. I talk to them as much as I can.
FM: Are they with your parent/s, or did come into CAS as well?
No my little brother is still with my mom and my older sister stayed with my mom until she moved out on her own when she was 18 or 19.
FM: And were they in trouble with the law?
FM: So you’re the bad egg in your family?
Take after my dad.
FM: Are you serious about that? Is that the way you think of yourself?
No. Just when it comes to that kind of stuff, I’m a little rebel like him.
FM: So how is your tendency to rebelliousness serving you now? How are you channeling that energy at present?
I don’t have the energy I used to. I just don’t care any more. Before it just felt like everyone else was trying to run my life and I didn’t want them to. I guess that’s what happens when you’re a kid but I didn’t like it.
FM: So your rebelliousness was not a positive force for you, it gave you space but now you’re wanting something other than space, some closeness, maybe?
Right now I have no idea what I want.
FM: Fair enough. Actually, I think most 17-year-olds don’t have the foggiest, so while your situation is dire, from a practical point of view, you’re somewhat typical as a teenager, trying to figure out what’s the next step.
FM: Okay, so who or what is a positive influence in your life now. You’ve said school, teacher… anybody anything else?
Not really. I have my friends and they’re great but most of them are drug addicts. So it’s not like I can rely on them. They’re not positive influences, no.
FM: From the outside looking in, that drug world looks very scary to me. What’s it like inside? Do you – or did you – fear for your safety on a regular basis?
I didn’t. There were obviously a lot of situations where I did, but not on a regular basis. It’s more you worry about getting robbed. I dunno, I guess some people would worry about their safety the whole time but I’ve lived with it my whole life. I guess my dad did.
FM: Dad did..? Worry about you? Or protect you?
No, I don’t think so.
FM: Okay, we won’t carry on. I see the stop sign. I have some finish-up questions if we’re ready for that…First, just to clarify, are you currently between living arrangements, is that what I understood?
FM: Okay. First finish up question. In order to give your story some focus, some shape, for the people who will read it, would you say what you think is the Most Important Event in this story. It could be something that happened, or something that didn’t happen, like the absence of something. Whad’ya say?
Really the most important thing was my time in CAS and how much they screwed me over.
FM: In what way?
Just from town to town, foster home to foster home, I dunno, I was fairly angry. It made me really angry and I couldn’t live my life properly with that anger. They didn’t try to help or do anything.
FM: Can you say what you wish they would have done that you would have found helpful?
Just giving me a little bit more support and when I told them what I wanted, if they would have listened, or just pretended to listen, take it into consideration and make it look like you’re doing something. Like kids, the last thing they want to feel is alone and that no one cares about them and that’s what most CAS kids feel.
FM: Was there anyone at all in that system that you felt some connection with?
Yeah, there was one foster home that I loved and I still keep in contact with them to this day. But the worker I had at the time, she didn’t like them. I was only supposed to be there for a few days because I got into a scrap with a girl in my other foster home. It ended up lasting a couple months, again the best foster home I’d ever lived in. And she just dragged me out one day, when the other girl had moved out of the other foster home, she just put me back there.
FM: What explanation given?
What was her explanation? Um, she never gave me one, so I’m not too sure.
FM: Whaddya think?
I really have no idea because I remember I called for months, whatever that thing is they have, the Advocacy, I called her supervisor, I called the head of the [CAS]. The one guy never called me back. Advocacy is there if your rights are broken and I guess my rights weren’t broken. And the supervisor was just an idiot.
FM: Okay so a big black eye for CAS, with a small glimmer of positive from one family, but buried by them also being taken away from you.
FM: That makes me very sad. I wish it was an isolated story, but maybe not.
FM: Okay, so next finish-up question: The people who will read this story will form some opinion about how it’s going to turn out. How do you think your story is going to turn out in the long run, good? Not so good?
It’s going to turn out perfect. I’m going to finish my high school. Get a good job. Get into a trade. And it’s going to work.
FM: All right. Two more questions, advice questions. First one: What advice would you give your younger self, whether or not your younger self would take that advice?
Stop letting it get to you. You’re just going to screw yourself over, so…
FM: What is ‘it’ in that sentence?
Everything. Like everything. My problems, my family’s problems, my friends’ problems, I just took it all on. Like things I had no control over.
FM: That is a big theme in this story, the lack of control over almost everything, and trying right now to start with a little centre of stability that you can build on..
FM: Okay, second advice question – you’re going to love this one: What advice would you give those of us who would like to be helpful to young people like yourself, what advice would you give to us?
Try and get kids like me to talk about their actual feelings, not just what they’re saying. Just because you ask doesn’t mean we think you care; we’re not going to tell you the truth, at least, unless we think you care.
FM: And how would you figure out whether or not a particular person really cares? What do you look for in making that decision?
I don’t know but I have to be extremely comfortable with the person I’m talking to, like You’re my counselor and here’s my life story the first time I talk to you. It’s not like that.
FM: So it takes time? Perseverance? Patience? Reliability?
Yeah, you really – if you don’t like what you do, don’t do it. If you don’t like youth, like teenagers, don’t do it. You have to be so passionate about what you do to work with people like me, like what I used to be.
FM: I love that. That’s so great! Are we done?