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Posted April 1, 2005


By Greg Stevenson

[Greg Stevenson is the Executive Director of CanAdventure Education Vancouver Island, BC, Canada and can be contacted at 250-544-4005 or 877-544-2267]

Programs for youth-at-risk in Canada are, for the most part, run by government or not-for-profit organizations. Many Canadians expect programs and services for youth-at-risk to be free, or at least subsidized by parties other than the direct user. This perspective is consistent with the Canadians' strong support for a social security system that provides essential services at no cost to those who struggle to find a positive and productive place in society. Any professional who works with youth-at-risk knows that the majority of troubled teens come from socio-economic backgrounds that preclude access to expensive user-pay therapy programs.

This sounds like an ideal system. However, a system funded through government and charitable giving dollars is inevitably limited in scope. Most funded programs focus on high-risk youth and young offenders. There are many youth-at-risk in Canada who do not fit eligibility requirements to access the limited programs funded by the government and not-for-profit groups. As a result, families of youth-at-risk can be left with few options for early intervention.

School-based and community services for youth at risk:
Most youth-at-risk cases start in the public school system or in community-based extra-curricular programs. While there are differences from province to province, it would be safe to say that most youth-at-risk are first identified by teachers or school counselors. They are often then placed in school-based remedial or alternate learning environments where their special needs are better addressed through a variety of approaches; smaller class sizes, increased supervision, regular contact with a counselor, slower learning pace, and so on. A few public school programs in Canada turn to experiential outdoor learning to try and re-engage youth-at-risk in the educational process while simultaneously promoting self-esteem, improving behavior patterns, and helping students integrate in positive ways with their community. Included in these are the BC-based Vancouver Island Experiential Wilderness (VIEW) Program at Stelly's School in Victoria and the Take-a-Hike Program at John Oliver School in Vancouver.

The problem with school-based services for youth-at-risk is that public education funding has been significantly reduced in Canada's decade-long battle to wrestle government deficits under control. As a result, smaller class sizes, increased supervision, and school counselors are more difficult to come by. Factor in the cost of running an experiential outdoor program and this type of service to youth-at-risk is becoming harder and harder to find.

Community programs for youth at risk:
In some cases, not-for-profits have picked up the slack left behind by cuts to school programs. There are many highly-effective programs for youth-at-risk being offered free or at subsidized prices by renowned organizations like the Boys & Girls Club, Big Brothers & Big Sisters, the YM-YWCA and many others. These programs often provide family services and the early intervention needed to help get youth-at-risk back on a positive path. Community recreation centers, which are usually funded through a combination of government and private monies, also offer programs that can help address the needs of youth-at-risk early on. Unfortunately, again due to limited resources, community programs often lack the duration and scope to have desired and long-term impacts.

When early intervention doesn't work:
Naturally, many youth-at-risk slip through the cracks in a system that is struggling with resources. They drop out or are expelled from school. They fail to connect with the programs that are available in the community. Or they simply fly below the radar of a society that is running at a faster and faster pace with less and less attention to the importance of focused youth development.

Youth-at-risk that do not gain access to an appropriate and effective program run the risk of traveling further down the path of deviant behavior. Some may distance themselves so much from family, school, and the mainstream community that traditional methods will no longer be effective. More serious intervention is required.

These youth-at-risk can end up in one of three places; social services, the healthcare system or the courts. Youth-at-risk under the age of majority who experience extreme family conflict (violence, abuse) or leave home and become street-entrenched can access programs run by their provincial social services ministry (Ministry of Children and Family Development in BC). These include anything from foster care to job training and placement initiatives. Youth-at-risk that exhibit heavy drug-use or deteriorating mental health issues like depression and unmanaged behavioral disorders may eventually require hospitalization and extended treatment, which is in most cases funded by the health care system. Youth-at-risk whose deviant and anti-social behavior patterns go unchecked are likely to wind up in court and possibly jail. These young offenders will in some cases have access to wilderness rehabilitation programs, such as Coastline Challenges in BC and Enviros Project Trust in Alberta.

Are there other intervention options for youth at risk?
Other intervention options for youth-at-risk fall mainly in the private sector. These include private counseling practices, drug rehabilitation programs, boarding schools, summer camps and therapeutic wilderness programs.

Private, user-pay programs are essential much-needed additions to the youth development programming continuum in Canada, as they help fill the gaps left by the public and not-for-profit systems. However, options in Canada remain in many cases limited in relation to the US. Therapeutic wilderness programs for youth-at-risk, as an example, are fairly unique in Canada. Principal operators include CanAdventure Education in BC, Kiatou in Quebec and Project DARE in Ontario. Other outdoor education programs offer similar operations but with less of a specific focus on youth-at-risk.

One of the reasons for the relative lack of private programming north of the border is Canada's higher level of expectation related to social assistance issues. Canadians are simply less receptive to user-pay services for youth-at-risk. As a result, private sector programs must always consider the social consciousness of Canadians by doing everything they can to serve the entire socio-economic spectrum. Scholarships or subsidies should always be in place to maximize access to families who might not otherwise be able to afford the entire cost of intervention for their youth-at-risk. This will not only make this type of programming more accessible to Canadians, but will also provide a new option to American families who enjoy an added discount through the favorable exchange rate between Canadian and American currencies.

All youth-at-risk deserve a chance to get back on track. We have the ability to help, and we must do everything we can to make our programs available to all who need them.

Copyright © 2005, Woodbury Reports, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(This article may not be reproduced without written approval of the publisher.)

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