Old enough to vote, but too young to speak on the record?
In stories about youth in care, journalists typically use fake names and hide faces. Are we protecting vulnerable people or stifling important voices?
Youth in government care have a unique perspective on our child welfare system. Their lives have been shaped by policies and steered by social workers and foster parents. They can tell you what the system feels like on the inside. But rarely do journalists let them speak for themselves, on the record, about the system that’s had such a huge impact on their lives.
Actually, that’s not true. Some journalists include perspectives from youth-in-care, but it’s standard practice to anonymize these youth, withholding their full name, image and any other information that might make them easily identifiable to others.
I’m wondering: Are we striking the right balance between shielding these youth from potential harms and honouring their right to express themselves? What about that 17-year-old who feels she’s been discriminated against by the system and wants people to know not just her story, but also her name, her voice and her face? Are there legal risks for journalists who reveal that a youth is in care? Are we anonymizing their identities for the right reasons?
“Just because you’re 17 doesn’t mean you’re not thoughtful,”This story marks the first in a series I’m working on with youth media fellow Dylan Cohen to answer some of these questions. For starters, I want to know whether journalists can and should make space for youth, who are currently in care, to speak on the record about their experiences.
Grant Charles would argue yes. He’s worked as a youth worker, a child protection worker, a mental health therapist, an advisor and an advocate. He currently works as an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia
“Giving voice to young people if they, in an informed way, decide that they want to use their names, I think is a very powerful statement on their part,” he tells me.
“Just because you’re 17 doesn’t mean you’re not thoughtful,” he says, adding that a lot of these kids have “gone through so much shit that their level of maturity is way past most people 10 years older than them.”
Marc St. Dennis takes a similar line. He works in Ottawa as the reconciliation and research coordinator at the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, a national non-profit led by child welfare advocate Dr. Cindy Blackstock.
“A lot of the youth that we work with here at the Caring Society are far more brilliant than many adults I’ve met. They have solutions. They have insights. To ignore them, not only is that a contradiction of our international obligations, but it’s also just bad policy,” says St. Dennis. “Because you’re not listening to everyone.”
At the same time, journalists must consider the context.
“There certainly will be cases where it will not be in the best interest of the child or the youth to provide their name,” he says. “You do not want to do anything that will put that child into a situation where they are uncomfortable or feel unsafe.”
St. Dennis advises journalists to look at the Caring Society’s Guidelines for the Ethical Engagement of Young People, which include best practices for supporting youth who are sharing personal stories. He also points to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says that parties should “assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child.” Basically, kids should have the right to express themselves if they want to.
Journalists explain why they don’t identify youth
When reporting on youth, Katie Hyslop prefers to err on the side of caution. In developing the Voices from the Future series for The Tyee, she quoted several youth, all over 18, about their experiences with drug use and homelessness. Some of them had “aged out” of government care. When she invited them to consider using pseudonyms as a safeguard against potential discrimination from landlords, employers and the like, they said she could change their names if she wanted to, but they were fine with using their real names.
Hyslop wrestled with what to do. “I didn’t want to be that adult who was like, ‘You’re only a child. What do you know?’” She also didn’t want to “perpetuate the idea that because you’ve done drugs or because you’ve been homeless that you should be ashamed of that — that that’s something you should hide from the world.”
In the end, she decided to use pseudonyms for all of them.
“As much as I’d really like to help change the stigma, I don’t know that doing it on the backs of children is the best idea,” she tells me.
When she was reporting on the child welfare system for The Vancouver Sun, Tracy Sherlock also preferred to err on the cautious side. “If they’re telling their own personal story, that could be very hard for them in the future because they might not realize all the ramifications of telling that story publicly,” she says. “Even though it’s frustrating for me as a reporter, it comes down to the protection of the vulnerable person.”
In 1997 the International Federation of Journalists did an inventory of journalistic standards for reporting on children in different countries around the world. They found “few of the existing journalism codes make special mention of the rights of children, or provide guidance on how childhood issues should be dealt with.”
That report was written nearly 20 years ago. And yet if you visit the Canadian Association of Journalists code of ethics website today, you’ll find only one mention of minors. The CAJ suggests journalists who are interviewing children about “particularly sensitive subjects” should “err on the side of seeking parental consent”. But that’s tough to do when you’re talking about a child in care.
When a youth is in care in B.C., their legal guardian is technically the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD). So I asked Shawn Larabee, the MCFD communications manager, if journalists are allowed to name youth in care. He tells me that the ministry’s policy is to protect the privacy of children, youth and families, adding that social workers are bound by the Child, Family and Community Service ACT (CFCSA).
“The CFCSA prohibits any individual from disclosing information gathered under the Act – this includes preventing media from revealing that a particular child is in government care, whether the child consents to that disclosure or not,” Larbee writes in an email. He suggests that journalists can report about a child in care if, for example, they’ve won a big sporting event or achieved something great academically, as long as they “don’t also disclose the child’s in-care status.”
But sometimes a youth’s in-care status is precisely the point, their reason for coming forward with a story. As a reporter, I’m still working to figure out the extent to which the MCFD’s policy is legally binding. Lawyers I’ve been speaking with say the legislation is pretty vague as far as its application to media — and it’s largely untested before the courts so it's difficult to say for sure. This legal grey area is something we will continue to explore in this series.
For now, these conversations leave us with more questions than answers. Is it ever in the best interest of young people in care to go public with their painful story or their critical perspective? Should we, as journalists, deny youth who want to speak on the record about a perceived injustice their right to self-expression? What message are we sending these youth when our default is to anonymize them in our stories?
As it is with any ethical, rights-balancing question, it seems people draw the lines in different places.
Note: This story marks the first in a series I’m working on with Discourse youth media fellow, Dylan Cohen. We’re gathering perspectives from youth and parents of youth in/from care. For more of Katie Hyslop’s perspective on this sign up for my child welfare newsletter, I’d love to hear what you think.