Saturday, August 21, 1999

Margaret Wente

p. D11.

The lost children of the streets

The story of Diane Sowden and her daughter is enough to give any parent nightmares. It's the story of a family that failed to save their child from great suffering, not because they didn't care, but because the courts and the social agencies and the law of the land wouldn't let them. What happened to them could happen to anyone with a troubled kid.

Diane Sowden and her husband and family live in Coquitlam, B.C., in a pleasant upper-middle-class enclave. Six years ago, their 13-year-old daughter started experimenting with drugs. She quickly got a crack habit. She got into debt. She needed a fix. She was easy pickings. She was recruited by a pimp, and went to work in the sex trade on Vancouver's Downtown East Side.

The Sowdens reported their daughter as a runaway. The police said they could do nothing — because people knew where she was, she wasn't missing.

Then the parents went to social services to argue the girl was in need of protection. Social services turned them away, because their daughter didn't want help, and because she had a supportive family to return to if she wanted.

Then Diane's husband did what most fathers would do, and tried to physically grab her off the street and take her home. The police warned him not to try it again, or he and Diane might be charged with confining a child against her will. They would have risked it, but they had their other kids to worry about.

"We were told, hopefully she'll get caught committing a crime. Then she might get help for her drug addiction through the justice system." Eventually she did get caught, but whatever the justice system offered in the way of rehabilitation didn't work. By the time she was 19 she had given birth to two crack-addicted babies. "My daughter was enabled by the system," says Diane.

The social-services system in British Columbia (and elsewhere) is dominated by the myth of the abused runaway. "Outreach workers believe that every kid on the street comes from someplace worse," says Diane. Sadly, that's often true. But often it's not. Even kids from good families can go bad. Yet in most parent-child conflicts, the system is strongly biased toward the child. Kids on the street quickly learn how to exercise their rights. And even if they do consent to drug treatment, they can walk away whenever they want.

It is almost impossible to apprehend a teenager against her will if she's not caught breaking the law — even if she's strung out on heroin. Alberta has a new secure-care law that allows prostitutes under age 18 to be picked up for 72 hours so that parents and social workers can try to persuade them to get off the street. But B.C. has no such law yet, and, in any event, the Alberta law only applies to kids turning tricks.

Another problem is that the age of consent in Canada is only 14. A man of any age can have sex with and even live with a 14-year-old girl, as long as she claims it's consensual. In the U.S. the age of consent is 16, and sometimes 18 for consent to sex with an adult. In the United States, the 27-year-old pimp who controlled Diane's daughter could have been charged with statutory rape.

Thousands of parents are caught helplessly in the Kafkaesque nightmare of lost children. Another one is Ben Shykora, a Calgary man whose 14-year-old crack-smoking daughter also ran away to the streets of Vancouver. There's a bed waiting for her in a treatment centre back in Alberta. But Alberta authorities can't apprehend her because she's in B.C., and B.C. says it can't send her back to Alberta as long as she doesn't want to go.

Other parents have resorted to kidnapping their own children and smuggling them into long-term rehab centres in the U.S.

Diane Sowden's experience turned her into an activist. She founded a lobby group, the Children of the Street Society, which is fighting to give parents and social agencies more power to intervene for kids like hers. (Her own daughter is now trying to turn her life around.) After hearing from hundreds of parents, B.C. is now considering a secure-care law similar to Alberta's. Last week several provincial premiers, including Ontario's Mike Harris, said they want to harmonize provincial child-welfare legislation so that it would be easier to protect juveniles who work in prostitution and move from one place to another.

Diane argues that these measures don't go far enough. She thinks we need to be able to commit kids to drug detox even if they don't want to go, and that the age of consent to sex with an adult should be raised to 16. She's right.

More than that, we need to realize that sometimes children's rights create much larger wrongs. A child-protection system that can't protect children from their own vulnerabilities is a shameful thing. One that prevents loving parents from doing so is a tragedy.

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Created: August 22, 1999
Last modified: June 11, 2001
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