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Archive for the ‘Child and Youth Advocacy’ Category

The rise of autism poses one of the biggest current challenges facing North American families and school systems everywhere. The latest education jurisdiction to step into the breach was the Canadian province of Ontario. In response to the mounting pressures for expanding services, the Ontario government announced a new $333 million, five-year autism program initiative packaged as good news.

AutismAndraFelsmanSonRiellySudburyInstead of being welcomed by parents of autistic kids, the move sparked a firestorm of provincial and local community protests. Hundreds of parents descended upon the Ontario Legislature to protest on April 12 and, three days later, local groups carrying signs reading “Autism Does Not End at Age Five” rallied in more than half a dozen smaller centres, including Ottawa, Kitchener, Aurora, Sudbury, Mississauga,and Waterdown, near Hamilton.

Young children with autism spectrum disorder in Ontario were promised shorter wait times for intensive therapy covered by the province, but those ages 5 and up will no longer be eligible as part of a revamped Ontario system. The New Ontario program aimed to cut wait times in half for Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) within two years, and then down to six months by 2021, according to the Ministry of Children and Youth Services.

The decision meant that 2,200 children ages 2 to 4 would be removed from wait lists over the next two years, while some 1,378 in treatment after age five, over half of the 2,000 currently served, would be transitioned out with an $8,000 grant intended to subsidize the less intensive Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy.  Denying access to children over age five left many near desperate parents completely “heartbroken” and some totally outraged over being denied the needed services.

Ontario’s Minister of Children and Youth Services, Tracy MacCharles, broke into tears when faced with the barrage of opposition, and Irwin Elman, the provincial Child and Youth Advocate, sided with the aggrieved parents, urging the government to postpone its plans. “The debate is not about waitlists,” He added. “It’s about children. It’s about people, and it is about their possibility and futures.”

Addressing the growing incidence of children with autism is now such a critical public policy issue that it recently attracted the attention of The Economist, one of the world’s most widely read business magazines. Since 2000, the share of eight-year-olds diagnosed with some form of autism spectrum disorder, including Asperger Syndrome, has doubled to one in every 68 children or 15 in every 1,000 kids.
AutismIncidence2000to2012Autism affects different people in different ways, ranging from severe communications impairment and compulsive repetitive movements to milder forms of social anxieties with a few intense, almost obsessive interests.  School can be extremely difficult for autistic children, and they are three times more likely to be bullied or ostracized by peers, and many withdraw before graduation.
In Canada, the United States and Britain, they tend to be educated in mainstream classrooms with Special Education supports, which is considered less expensive than providing intensive programs. Regular classroom teachers in all three countries regularly report that they lack the training and resources to properly serve children with autism.

The Canadian province of Alberta stands out as an exception.  Since the mid-1990s, Alberta Education has embraced more school choice, especially in special education services.  Alberta’s direct funding system provides grant support for kids with developmental disabilities, based on each child’s needs, to pay for whatever services suit them best. Options include special needs schools, a range of behavioural, speech and occupational therapies, respite care, camps, and personal support workers to accompany children to recreational activities.

Children are assessed through the Family Support for Children with Disabilities program, which determines the amount. Wait times are minimal. Parents have choices, unlike in Ontario, where IBI is the only sustained treatment covered by the province. While Nova Scotia has a Tuition Support Program, it is limited to children with diagnosed SLD attending three designated schools enrolling fewer than 230 students. Financial support to attend specialized programs is extremely rare elsewhere in Canada.

One example of such a school program is Janus Academy, a Calgary, Alberta, school for children with autism. It’s a specialized private school where parents pay $12,000 in tuition each year for a program that costs $40,000 per student to operate. In other words, providing access to a specialized IBI program at a quarter of what parents would pay in Ontario.

Teaching autistic children using IBI can be expensive, but it can produce noticeable gains., especially if started in the early years. The Alberta government underwrites most of the difference, and the school also fundraises to support the tuition subsidies. “We don’t have to fight the schools (for what the children need), they’re partners with us. And I know they are learning,” reports Janus Academy parent Tim Ingram, formerly of London, Ontario.  The intensive and wrap-around support, he adds, helps the whole family function, but it takes some extra effort to secure a place in such a school.

School can be tough for autistic children and teens, but many have a worse time once they leave the system. A study by the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute in Philadelphia found that only 19% of American autistic people in their early 20’s lived independently, away from their parents. Wherever they live many are isolated: one in four said that they had not seen friends or received invitations to social events in the past year. Some autistic people prefer their own company, but many are unhappy.

Preparing and training autistic young people for the workforce is emerging as a priority in the new economy.  While academic studies on global employment rates for adults with autism are rare, the UN estimates that 80% do not work. A survey by Britain’s National Autistic Society, a charity, suggests that only 12% of higher-functioning autistic adults work full time. For those with more challenging forms of autism, only 2% have jobs.

Job training, life-skills coaching and psychotherapy could really help in tackling the problem. An American study found that 87% of autistic youngsters who were given assistance to find a job, got one. Only 6% who did not receive support were successful. But in most countries, services disappear the moment autistic people finish full-time education.

There is hope that the life prospects for those with autism will improve in the future. More progressive business leaders and enterprises, as reported in The Economist, are stepping-up and providing more flexible employment arrangements to take fuller advantage of the truly unique skills and aptitudes of autistic people. Providing early treatment and effective intensive behavioural intervention is where it has to start.

Why is autism considered one of the biggest school challenges of our time? Why is Intensive Behaviour Intervention (IBI) so much in demand– and so rationed in our public school systems?  What’s standing in the way of provinces and states adopting the Alberta model of school choice and tuition support for intensive programs? What more can be done to properly “transition” autistic students into the workplace?  
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The Inverness Community Leadership Centre in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is edging closer to realization. A former coal mine office is about to be transformed through a $2 million renovation into Nova Scotia’s first “children’s zone” development initially housing two innovative local ventures, the Early Years Co-op and the Inverness Cottage Workshop for intellectually disabled adults, with plans to add an entrepreneurship centre. In it’s conception, the little venture is actually inspired more by American than Canadian precedents.

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Campaigning to eradicate child poverty and promoting universal social support programs remain the well-worn Canadian policy approaches to “closing the income gap.” Community reconstruction in Inverness is markedly different because it begins and ends with children, youth and families. Much like glittery American ventures such as Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods, it taps into the enormous, largely underutilized potential of community-based, child-centred alternatives.

The ambitious project in Inverness, a struggling Cape Breton town of 2,000 souls, is anything but an overnight success. It’s clearly the brainchild of a true visionary, Jim Mustard, a messianic Town Councillor with Early Child Development in his DNA. He is, after all, the son of the late Dr. Fraser Mustard, the world renowned McMaster University pediatrician famous for promoting maternal health and early childhood education.

Mustard was at his passionate best at the March 2015 Dalhousie Shift Rural Symposium. “We need to embrace children from birth,” he said, “and if we don’t provide Early Years programs now, there will be problems down the road. If we make our children the North Star, then we’ll stay on track.”

An Early Years Co- Op was only the first step for Mustard. He’s out to rebuild an entire community. “The idea is to generate a sense of community. It needs to feel like a kitchen table gathering with people just hanging out,” he remarked in December 2013. ”When you think of the expertise that will appear in an informal setting it will trump all the rest of it.”

Early learning is gradually advancing in Nova Scotia, by baby steps, and it is vital to the longer-term social regeneration agenda. Since the 2012 Canadian Pediatrics Society (CPS) report, the province has come onside. For every dollar spent on the early childhood years, governments now see a $4 to $6 return to society in terms of more productive youth and reduced expenditures for juvenile justice, jails and social assistance.

Child and family poverty remains a stark reality in Nova Scotia, especially outside of Halifax. Since 2000, the target year for the eradication of child poverty, Dr. Lesley Frank of Acadia University reports that the child poverty rate (22.2%) has barely budged, in spite of modest increases in the minimum wage and child support programs.

Children, youth and families in lower income homes bore the brunt of the brutal 2008-10 economic recession. One in 3 children (32.6%) in Cape Breton are living in poverty, compared to 24.4% in Kentville, 24.3% in New Glasgow, 21.8% in Truro, and 18.6% in Halifax. While child poverty statistics are hard to find in Yarmouth,  there’s a steady demand for shelter at SHYFT Youth Services, responding to the needs of homeless youth.

Most of the remedial measures bandied about — legislating a living wage, introducing the Guaranteed Basic Income, or province-wade subsidized child care — are well known. Most often they are proposed by Canadian child welfare activists committed to restoring the diminished and porous social safety net.

Establishing children’s zones and embarking upon social reconstruction street-by-street are still new and mysterious here in Nova Scotia and in other regions of Canada. One notable exception is the Toronto District School Board, where, since 2009, the TDSB’s Inner City Advisory Committee has assessed and ranked its neediest or “priority” school communities. That Learning Opportunities Index (LOI) identified some 77 school neighbourhoods where “children from lower income families” face “significant barriers” to ” achieving high educational outcomes.”

The Toronto LOI project is a promising first step, openly acknowledging that not all public school communities are equal. It can also be an extremely valuable indicator of where a school system needs to target its educational resources. The Toronto board, however, is less clear in how the LOI is actually being used. Beyond reporting in 2014 that LOI is utilized to “help allocate staff and other resources” it’s hard to identify visible, targeted programmatic initiatives.

Looking south to the United States, the initial glow surrounding Geoffrey Canada’s signature project, the Harlem Children’s Zone, has faded as time and student results tone down the somewhat unrealistic transformative expectations. While Canada’s project falls short of being “The Harlem Miracle,” it has produced measurable gains for kids living in one of North America’s most disadvantaged urban districts.

Now that Geoffrey Canada has stepped down as CEO of Harlem Chidren’s Zone (HCZ), more objective assessments of its success are appearing. Although they focus on HCZ, the appraisals may well apply to the replica projects supported by President Barack Obama in 20 different cities across the United States. Already, it is clear that allocating $60 million to the Promise Neighborhood projects in cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, will be insufficient to duplicate HCZ that required over $200 million to make a dent in schools serving 8,000 children and 6,000 adults across 97 blocks of Harlem.

HCZGeoffreyCanada

Critics of Geoffrey Canada and his HCZ tend to miss the whole point of his massive social reconstruction project. Through his work with HCZ’s precursor, Rheedlen Centres for Children and Families, Canada learned that child and family poverty was not amenable to eradication when projects focused on only one dimension of the problem. Establishing charter schools alone would not work without addressing the underlying social determinants of chronic student underperformance: early childhood development, housing, and health care.  His ambitious initiative, as MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli recently noted, demonstrated how “ambitious community programs…. paired with aggressive school reform efforts” offer the best hope to “close the achievement gap” and revitalize whole communities.

American Children’s Zones, it turns out, have rather surprisingly much in common with Jim Mustard’s Inverness Community project. It too is a community-based social reconstruction venture that has the potential to change that dynamic. What Geoffrey Canada undertook in Harlem, is just the Inverness project on a gigantic scale. One look at that little Cape Breton project is enough to awaken anyone ready to think “outside the box” about the potential for child-centred models of community re-development.

What’s the real purpose of Children’s Zones in both inner city neighbourhoods and small communities? Does child-centred community redevelopment still have the potential to break the cycle of child and family poverty? If so, what’s standing in the way of its realization?

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Readiness to learn upon entering school is now recognized as critical to the success of students. Since 1998-99, an Early Development Instrument (EDI) has been used to measure child development across five domains: physical health and well-being, social knowledge and competence, emotional health/maturity, language and cognitive development, and general knowledge and communications skills. Yet recent Canadian national and provincial surveys, conducted by McMaster University’s Offord Centre for Child Studies, continue to show that one in four children (26%) are ‘vulnerable’ in one or more areas of development before entering Grade 1.

ECEKidsThe latest province to embrace the Early Child Development movement is Nova Scotia.  In late November 2014, its recently renamed Department of Education and Early Child Development became the nineth (second last) province to conduct and release its EDI survey results. To virtually no one’s surprise, some 26.8% of pupils entering primary school face learning challenges. Physical health and well-being posed the biggest hurdle for kids and in three of the province’s eight school boards, Tri-County RSB , South Shore RSB, and the Strait RSB, one in three primary schoolers (33.6 to 40.8%) showed vulnerability in at least one area of development.

The Nova Scotia statistics, based upon teacher surveys in 2012-13, only confirmed what many previous reports have shown — that Canadian provinces lag behind other developed countries when it comes to the state of early childhood development and care. It also begged the critical question –what’s standing in the way of tackling this fundamental educational policy matter?

Early childhood education across Canada is still mostly provided in piecemeal fashion.  In most provinces, except for Quebec, their is a gap between the end of parental leave and the start of formal schooling, during which parents are left on their own. Where private day care is available, it is often prohibitively expensive and alternative cooperative day care is usually in short supply.  The quality of “child care” is highly irregular, judging from provincial regulatory reports and periodic shutdowns.

While the federal and provincial governments in 2011 provided over $11 billion of funding, spending on the ECE sector still lagged behind that of other advanced nations. In November 2012, TD Economics estimated that it would take another $3 to $4 billion in investment to bring Canada up to the average of other industrialized countries.  Across Canada, of the $7.5 billion spent by provinces and territories,  the allocations averaged only 1.53% of their total budgets, ranging from 0.59% in Nunavut to 4.67% in Quebec.

Passionate advocates for universal ECE are fond of claiming that it works miracles and has substantial long-term dollar benefits.  Most studies, largely funded by Child Development or Child Welfare organizations, estimate that the benefits of early learning far outweigh the costs. For every dollar invested, the claimed benefits range from roughly 1.5 to almost 3 dollars, with the ratio rising to double digits for disadvantaged children. Such investments do save us later in terms of the longer-term expenses for juvenile justice, jails, welfare and income supports. Even so, quantifying these benefits is not an exact science, in spite of the claims of advocates.

Early childhood education initiatives tend to be expensive and run into cost over-runs. Ontario’s full day Kindergarten program, beset by escalating costs and overcrowded sites, is a case in point. A more modest venture in Prince Edward Island is proving to be more successful. The soaring costs of Quebec’s universal program are, however, enough to deter late adopters like Nova Scotia.

Quebec’s current $7-a-day early childhood program is so costly that it may not be sustainable in its current form.  Since its inception in 1997, the $2.7 billion program has become what Konrad Yakabusky recently termed “a sacred cow.” Proposing to raise the daily rates to $20 for those earning over $50,000 has recently sparked a political firestorm.  Pointing out that Quebec’s subsidized daycare sites have much higher child to staff ratios ( 5:1 vs. 3:1 to 20:1 vs. 12:1) compared to other provinces gets you nowhere with young working parents. It’s also hard to prove that the Quebec program has improved the employment rate of women of child-rearing age.

Early childhood development still deserves to be identified and acted upon as an educational priority. Public spending on early childhood care and education continues to lag and we still rank last (at 0.5% of GDP) among comparable European and Anglo-speaking countries.  Looking at total spending, including child payments, parental leave benefits, and child care support, we remain 17% below the OECD average. Parents, except those in Quebec, pay 50% of the program costs, fourth highest among the OECD countries.  Now that our federal treasury is back to surplus, early learning should be a much higher national priority than doling out special, targeted tax exemptions, expressly designed to snare votes.

What’s standing in the way of a more committed, robust investment in Early Child Development at both the national and provincial levels? Given the countless reports demonstrating the learning challenges facing young children, how much longer can it be ignored or subject to underfunded, piecemeal public fixes?  Whether we decide to go universal or to target our early years investments, isn’t it time to take on the fundamental public policy issue?

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Allana Loh’s neighbourhood cries out for radical change. Only one out of every two children attending her north-end Dartmouth elementary school currently graduates from high school.  Three years ago, she and her friend Roseanna Cleveland raised money to finance a feasibility study aimed at securing a Dartmouth site sponsored by Pathways to Education.  Now she is campaigning to bring a proven literacy program, SpellRead  into her daughter’s school, Harbour View Elementary, to boost its alarmingly low literacy rates.

PathwaysTakeAction14She and her group, the Take Action Society, experience, first hand, the debilitating effects of  “unequal education.”  Since 2010, they have been working to create positive change in a community that struggles with a high crime rate, drugs, poverty and lower levels of education. They have built a community garden, painted a large mural outside the school and organized community cleanups.

Now Loh is convinced that only a bold initiative can bring about the need radical change. “We would like to have Dartmouth North declared an education reconstruction zone.”  Speaking out is rare, but Loh and the Take Action Society are far from alone in seeking bold and more comprehensive approaches to community-school regeneration.

A powerful new series of investigative news reports, produced by Teri  Pecoskie at the Hamilton Spectator, and headlined “Unequal Education,” has ripped the lid of the problem of educational inequalities in urban school systems. “As school reformer Horace Mann famously put it, education is a great equalizer, ” she wrote. “It’s the balance wheel of the social machinery. Something that offers every child, regardless of personal circumstance, a fair shot at success. In Hamilton, though, there’s nothing equal about education. The fact is, where you are born, and to whom, can have a profound effect on your future.”

The Spectator analysis of six years of Ontario EQAO test results reveals huge gaps in academic achievement in Hamilton schools, despite significant investments aimed at levelling the playing field. When education is so important to the future of our kids and our city, why do such disparities continue to exist, and what can be done to fix them? Pecoskie spent months researching the issue and provides the answers in a special five-part series.

Through interactive graphics, The Spectator , compares, in graphic detail, student test scores with socio-economic factors in each school neighbourhood. Students at St. Patrick School in the poorer east end of downtown Hamilton, she found, are badly trailing in performance, compared to those  at St. Thomas the Apostle in Waterdown, where only 15 per cent of the children come from low income households.

The stark revelations in Pecoskie’s series are not new, but they demonstrate conclusively that bold initiatives will be required to turn student performance around in these struggling school communities. Her findings also add weight and significance to the findings of researchers preparing feasibility studies foe Pathways to Education. Since its inception in 2001, Pathways has identified over 14 different neighbourhoods across Canada which qualify as high student dropout zones.

Struggling students in faltering schools cry out for more radical, innovative community-based solutions. Proven educational development programs like Pathways to Education in Halifax Spryfield , sponsored by Chebucto Community Connections, are demonstrating what a “wrap-around” child and youth support program can accomplish in a few short years. So has the pioneering community support stay-in-school venture known as the Epic Youth Peer Breakthrough Program in Sydney, Cape Breton.

School communities in crisis cannot afford to wait until they secure another Pathways to Education site, perhaps a decade from now. Armed with what we know know about struggling neighbourhoods, let’s start by identifying the potential “education reconstruction zones” and enlisting the support of a cross-section of public and private sector partners from Community Services to the United Way to the local chambers of commerce.

THe stark inequalities are clear and it’s time for action where it counts  in the Premier’s Offices and our corporate board rooms. Since 2010, President Barack Obama and the U.S. Education Department have blazed the policy trail. Starting with 21 American communities and $10 million, the “Promise Neighbourhoods” initiative, inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, has begun to transform poor urban and rural neighbourhoods with “cradle –to-career services.”

Allana Loh is giving voice to the voiceless, The Spectator has smashed the myth of equal opportunities, and Pathways to Education has charted the course.   Struggling school communities are worthy candidates for domestic social and economic reconstruction projects. What we need is bold leadership committed to a more comprehensive, targeted “reconstruction zone” strategy expanding educational opportunities for all children.

Whatever happened to the vision of public education as “the great equalizer?”  What can we learn from the findings of the Pathways to Education studies and the recent Spectator “Unequal Education” series?  Will more of the same in the form of more funding for existing programs, student supports, and special education  ever succeed in making a dent in the problem? Is it time to identify “education reconstruction zones” and to mobilize a wider range of resources targeted on struggling neighbourhhoods  and aimed at significantly raising graduation rates?

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The Rehteah Parsons case has made us all far more aware of the contemporary spectre of cyberbullying and teen sexual assault. Coming on the heels of recent teen suicides and prescription drug tragedies, Rehteah’s death prompted a flurry of immediate — and delayed — responses from Nova Scotia’s education, child and youth services, hospital, police and judicial systems. Every Canadian province far too many Rehteah Parsons-like stories of lost teens who fell through the cracks in the system.

RehtaehMemorialAfter all of this frenzied activity, Rehtaeh’s own province  still has a a gaping hole in its child and youth service system. Simply reacting to the regular and ongoing “youth crisis” eruptions is not good enough.  Nova Scotia desperately needs the visible and active presence of an empowered Child and Youth Advocate, independent of the Government and separate from the provincial Ombudsman’s Office.

The current provincial ombudsman, Dwight Bishop, has, to his credit, raised the alarm bells in late June and again in his latest annual report. Sadly, both of those sincere and impeccably diplomatic appeals fell mostly upon deaf ears.
Provincial bureaucrats like Bishop, unlike those heavyweight auditor generals, often appeal for bigger budgets to expand their reach, but – in this case – the cry for a more robust presence is not only justified, but long overdue.

The 2007 Nova Scotia Child and Youth Strategy established a better policy framework and the situation now cries out for real action. Many teen suicides are preventable, child poverty is growing, financially-pressed families are stressed out, domestic violence exists in too many children’s lives, and abuses still happen in child welfare and educational institutions.

The N.S. Ombudsman Office, founded in response to allegations of institutional abuse in the 1960s, labours on with a very limited mandate and an annual budget of only $1.7 million, a fraction of what is invested elsewhere.  Last year, Nova Scotia spent only $400,000 investigating child and youth complaints, less than one-quarter of the amount expended in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The mandate of Nova Scotia’s ombudsman is far too narrow, limiting Bishop to investigating cases of abuse in provincial child and youth care facilities. His latest recommendation to establish a “child death review committee” was well intended, but is woefully inadequate because we cannot be satisfied with simply providing justice at the tail end of the process.

It’s time Nova Scotia joined Canada’s eight other provinces with Child and Youth Advocates in taking a more robust approach with a full mandate to investigate a wider range of individual cases, to recommend changes in child, youth and education service systems, and to take the lead in advocating changes in child and youth policy.

When Nova Scotia adopted the Child and Youth Strategy, the key initiatives were entrusted to the Community Services Department and, to a lesser extent, the Education Department. Some progress has been made in promoting juvenile justice reform, restorative justice practices and integrated service delivery, including the SchoolsPlus program aimed at supporting the 10 to 15 per cent of children and youth at highest risk.

The time is ripe for an independent agency to assess recent reforms and to attack child and youth problems at the source .It is not enough to simply focus on individual cases of abuse and death when an open, accessible complaints office and comprehensive reviews yield so much more for policy-makers. Such independent provincial reviews are also much more affordable for taxpayers.

An August 2009 review of Canadian provincial child and youth advocacy offices, conducted by Robin MacLean and R. Brian Howe at Cape Breton University, found that Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba had the most effective operations.  Those jurisdictions were reportedly “more active and successful in advising government and influencing systemic reform,”  leading to policy and legislative changes.  Nova Scotia lagged behind other provinces, particularly in its scope of operations and public advocacy role.

The Saskatchewan Child and Youth advocacy system has proven itself capable of effecting positive change. Since 2007, that office has sparked the province-wide adoption of eight Child and Youth First Principles, based upon the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), establishing child rights and provisions for “the greater protection from harm.”  That led to a prohibition of corporal punishment in public schools, youth detention centre detox programs, teen health information clinics, and bullying prevention policies.

Child poverty reduction now tops the agenda in BC and Saskatchewan where the provincial offices have issued Child Poverty Report Cards. More than one in eight Nova Scotia children live in poverty, the fourth highest percentage in Canada, after BC, Manitoba and Ontario. A provincial Child and Youth Advocate here would ensure that we look “upstream” at the root causes of child poverty, child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and later criminal activity.

The N.S. ombudsman’s proposal for a “child death committee” falls far short of what Nova Scotia children, youth, and families need in a time of financial stress and high anxiety complete with new threats like serial sexting and cyber harassment.   Taking action now may be just what saves us from a succession of Rehteah Parsons cases in the years ahead.

Who speaks up for Children and Youth who go off track at a critical point in their lives?  Which Canadian province has the best record in Child and Youth advocacy? What will it take to convince governments to address the problems of troubled children and youth at the source rather than a the tail end?

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