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Tracey turns 19

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“You’re wearing my sneakers.”

The voice—hard, flat, insistent—is coming from behind us in the line at the A&W in the food court at Scotia Square. I turn to see who it is. She’s a big girl, probably in her late teens, blonde hair pulled back tight against her skull, a belligerent, don’t-fuck-with-me look permanent-markered onto her face. She pays no attention to me.

“I want my sneakers,” she menaces Tracey. “Take ‘em off. *Now*.”

Tracey doesn’t flinch. She’s half the other girl’s size, almost waif-like, delicate but not really. How could she be, considering? She looks the other girl in the eye. She’s not defiant, but not cowed either. “Heather said I could wear them,” she replies evenly. “Until I get my own.”

Heather, it turns out, is Belligerent Girl’s sister. Heather’s letting Tracey stay in her apartment until Tracey gets her first welfare cheque next week. She also let Tracey borrow her sister’s sneakers because… well, because Tracey’s last boyfriend gave away all her clothes.

That’s another story. There are lots of other stories. We’ve come here today so I can hear a few.

By the time Tracey’s Crispy Chicken Burger combo arrives, Belligerent Girl---seemingly uncertain how to respond to Tracey’s Zen-like calmness---has retreated to a nearby table where she continues to complain loudly about the sneakers to a seatmate.

Despite the fact Tracey has no money for food and probably hasn’t eaten all day, she picks at the meal I buy her. She’s lost 50 pounds in the past two years, she tells me. “I moved from place to place a lot,” she explains. “And I didn’t eat.”

“So,” I ask Tracey, not sure where to begin, “why don’t you tell me what you’ve been up to since the last time we met?”

That was more than two years ago, in the summer of 2007. I was researching a story for The Coast (“Lost children,” Oct. 25, 2007) about kids who’d fallen through the cracks in the child welfare system. At the time, Tracey was just 16, and a poster child for the gaping abyss that system had become.

Back in 1999, when she was eight, Nova Scotia’s Community Services Department took Tracey away from her mother because---it claimed---it could do a better job raising her.

That shouldn’t have been hard. Tracey’s mother Alison was in foster care herself when she became pregnant for the first time at 15. By the time she was 21, she’d had four children by four fathers. Tracey, her third, was the only one she parented for long. During Tracey’s first few years, they lived in five provinces with more men than Tracey can remember, at least two of whom Tracey witnessed assaulting her mother.

When Tracey was six and living in a Dartmouth welfare hotel with Alison and an ex-husband who wasn’t supposed to be there, social workers scooped her up and placed her in temporary care. Two years later, a judge made the provincial custody order permanent.

But Community Services did no better---perhaps worse---than Tracey’s mother as her “parent.” She was shuffled from foster home to foster home (six or seven by her count), and when those options were exhausted, into one group home after another.

At first, authorities refused to allow Tracey and her mother to see each other. When she was 12, they finally gave Tracey permission to write letters to her mother, but didn’t let her read her mother’s replies---or even tell her she’d written back.

Mother and daughter finally found each other in the winter of 2005---to the chagrin of social workers who got a court order to keep mother and daughter apart, and then threatened to charge Alison with kidnapping after Tracey ran away from her group home to be with her.

That’s when Tracey started acting out. Though she’d never been in legal trouble before, Tracey began racking up criminal charges soon after she was returned to the group home. By the spring of 2007, she was facing 32 criminal charges, all related to her behaviour at the group home.

In court, her lawyer told the judge Tracey needed intense, daily psychiatric treatment on a long-term basis. Since that treatment wasn’t available in Nova Scotia, the lawyer said, the only person “who can do anything” to help Tracey was Judy Streatch, the then-minister of community services and the official legal guardian for all of the 2,000 children in care in Nova Scotia. So the frustrated judge ordered Streatch to personally attend a case conference to discuss how to make sure Tracey got the help everyone agreed she needed.

Demanding a cabinet minister personally come to court to deal with the case of an individual child created the predictable political firestorm; the order was rescinded.

In the end, Tracey eventually pleaded guilty to the charges and was placed on probation until December 2008.

After that… she disappeared again, and—though no one would admit it—the simple truth is that the authorities gave up wanting to find her. She’d become more trouble than she was worth.

At first, Tracey tells me, she moved in with her boyfriend’s family in Spryfield, but “we were fighting too much and the police got called,” so the family told her to leave.

She ended up—briefly—at her mother’s apartment. Her mother kicked her out in the middle of the second night. “We were sharing the pullout couch—her boyfriend was sleeping on the mattress—and she got mad because I was rubbing my feet together. That’s how I get to sleep. But it made her mad.”

Tracey had to walk barefoot back to Spryfield where her now ex-boyfriend’s family let her live in a tent in the backyard. But she wasn’t allowed into the house to shower or wash her clothes. “I had to go downtown for that.”

To make matters worse, she and the ex-boyfriend got into another fight. “There were, like, six police cars and they had police dogs.” The police packed her off to Bryony House, an emergency shelter for abused women and children. Then to Adsum House, which provides housing and support to women and children, as well as young girls over 16 with no place to go.

“It didn’t work out,” Tracey tells me simply.

So she went to Alberta to spend time with a sister she’d never met before. That lasted three weeks. “I got blamed when $1,700 disappeared, but I never took it,” she insists. After that, Tracey made her way to Ottawa to renew acquaintances with the father she hadn’t seen in 10 years.

“It felt weird at first,” she tells me. “He looked way different. I thought he was tall, but he wasn’t. And he’d gained a lot of weight. And lost a lot of hair.”

Still, she recalls those two months with her father with what now seems like nostalgia. “We’d walk the dog together everyday,” she says. “And then in April we went to Weed Day on some hill up in Ottawa. After, we went to one of his friends’ houses and he made us burgers. Then we went home and watched TV.”

But Tracey missed her friends back in Halifax—the street kids who are the only real family she’s ever known—so one day in late June she simply hopped a bus back east. “I left my dad part of my welfare cheque for rent,” she tells me.

Back in Halifax this past summer, another boyfriend gave away all her clothes after she decided to break up with him. Now she spends Monday and Friday afternoons slowly replenishing her wardrobe from the bins at a local shelter. “I’m particular about my clothes,” she tells me.

Today, she’ll need to look for sneakers.

But her main task is to apply for her first adult welfare cheque. In early October, Tracey turned 19, which meant she was finally, officially, free of the child welfare system.

Where was child protection services while she was wandering, unprotected, across the country, I wonder?

Tracey says she met with her social worker a few times a month whenever she was in Halifax, mostly to get her cheque—roughly $150 a month. “We’d have coffee and sometimes she’d drive me to wherever I was staying,” Tracey explains. “And I could call if I needed help.” Her last social worker, a woman named Jackie, “was the best one.”

What’s next? “I’m a woman now,” Tracey says simply. “I have to take care of myself.” But she admits she’s “scared… it’s going to be tough.”

Once she gets her first welfare cheque next week, she says, she plans to find an apartment, and then apply for a passport and her beginner’s licence, and begin looking for a job.

It won’t be easy. Officially, she dropped out after Grade 9; unofficially, she admits she’s tested at a Grade 5 or 6 reading level. She’s tried alternate school programs but gave up. “I’d rather be with my friends,” she tells me.

Part of the problem is that Tracey can’t concentrate—she never did get the help her lawyer said she needed—which will inevitably become an issue whenever she applies for a job. “I can’t work fulltime.”

It’s hard not to ask yourself whether Tracey, in the end, is any better off for having spent a decade as a ward of the state.

“Do you think you’ve gained anything at all, being in care?” I ask her finally.

She takes a bite of her burger, chews, considers. Finally, she shrugs. “Not really,” she says. “Not really.”

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