Ça prend tout un village!

By P.A. Sévigny

Ayant passé toute sa vie à travailler pour améliorer le sort des enfants dans les quartiers les plus pauvres à Montréal, le docteur Gilles Julien est toujours prêt à continuer son combat pour les droits de l’enfant. Après toute une carrière dans les tranchées de la médecine d’une pédiatrique, il continue à croire que le bien-être de l’enfant devait être la responsabilité de toute la communauté et non pas seulement celle de la famille ou pire, celle de l’unique parent de famille monoparentale.


“Not only must we mobilize the community to respect every child’s right for a decent life,” Julien said, “but this is how the community can learn to reconsider its own priorities.”  Steinmetz added: “Early childhood poverty causes disease and an early death. It’s that simple,”

Using evidence gathered over 30 years of applied clinical research, they used a power-point presentation to display disturbing results which he believes will result in a social catastrophe implicating fully one third of the city’s population.

“It all begins with the pregnancy,” Steinmetz said. “When a mother is stressed, the brain reacts with a typical ‘fight or flight’ reflex, but the mother is trapped so there’s no getting out of it. Bad living conditions, abusive relationships, a lack of money, and bad nutrition, do not make a healthy baby and that’s the beginning of a slippery slope.

“Stress is toxic,” he said. Mothers under perpetual stress produce cortisonol, a cortisone derivative which makes its way through the placenta and into the baby. It kills brain cells, eliminates future synapse development and destroys potential neuron connections. At three years old, the affected child’s brain is significantly smaller than average and displays abnormal development of cortical, limbic and midbrain structures. At this point, the brain’s structural changes lead to altered cognitive and emotional development. “People have to know about this, “said Steinmetz. “People have got to know what’s happening to these children.”

By the time the child is three years old, all the groundwork is laid out for its potential education and its future social development. If the child was neglected from birth, it will probably display delays in various language, social and motor skills along with a reduced attention span and abnormal activity levels. This will result in isolation and exclusion from social peer groups, which lead to an inevitable isolation and a poor self-image.

Arizona  predicts its future prison requirements by analysing its present third grade failure rates. Recent statistics demonstrate how more than 42 percent of the poorest and most vulnerable children in the city are not prepared to start school at the normal age, which will inevitably lead to failing grades in later years.

Another disturbing statistic demonstrates how a child born in Montreal’s poorer east-end districts can expect to live for barely 59 years as opposed to a child born in the west end where one can expect to live until they’re at least 77 years old. That is to say children born in Montreal’s West Island, only 20 kilometres down the road, can expect to live more than 20 percent longer than the child born in the Hochelaga- Maisonneuve district.

« On doit promouvoir un environment autant stimulant qu’il soit accessible pour les enfants au cœur de leurs propres communautés, » dit le docteur Julien.

“This is unacceptable,” the doctors state emphatically. They believe the economic status quo is condemning a serious percentage of children to a dull and mostly desperate life of poverty and imminent physical decrepitude. They advocate that the government should consider the Convention of the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations in 1989. Julien and Steinmetz point out how respect for the rights of a child as defined by the United Nations closely resembles the minimum conditions required for what paediatric specialists consider being a healthy child. “Once everybody begins to understand this situation,” they said, “the sooner we can get around to doing something about it.”

The foundation takes concrete steps. In the short term, children who are victims of both neglect and abuse must first be rescued. Within the context of the constant failure and the exclusion created and caused by poverty, they propose an inclusive social paediatrics model that includes all the services required by children in need. “Education must no longer be elitist and become popular knowledge,” Steinmetz said.

He believes coherent leadership and mass participation at the local level may help alleviate some of the damage poverty does to children. “Knowledge has to be linked to values, then emotion because it’s not reason that moves us to action,” he said. “It’s emotion.”  

The Fondation has had many remarkable successes including a very interesting recent one. Public and private partnerships (PPP) took on a whole new dimension as two city neighborhoods decided to do what they could for children. The central city along with the CDN/NDG borough council agreed to set up a new summer parks project for the borough’s kids.  “It’s all about providing an accessible and stimulating environment for children within the heart of their own communities,” said Dr. Julien. “We’re very happy to see the community mobilized around this project.”

Two teams of child-care workers will organize a summer-long series of events in two CDN parks. Activities in both the Kent as well as the Darlington Place Park will include theatre, assorted games, road trips and other initiatives as a means to create a pro-active and community-based environment for local children as proposed by the Fondation.  Julien said the province’s social services would have to change its priorities if it wants to get serious about solving serious problems affecting many of the province’s children, “especially poor children.” Julien believes an ounce of social prevention at every level of a child’s young life is worth a pound of whatever society considers the cure whenever its welfare is concerned.

« Dès qu’on appelle la DPJ (Département de Protection de Jeunesse) c’est presque toujours trop tard, “ dit-il. « Le dommage est fait. » His ideas about social pediatrics arose out of decades on the front lines of pediatric medicine in the poorer quarters of Montreal. He is convinced that a child’s welfare should be the community’s responsibility and not just that of its parents or worse — its single mother.

“On ne doit pas seulement mobiliser la communauté pour qu’elle respecte les droits de chaque enfant pour une vie normale, dit le docteur, mais c’est une bonne façon de voir comment une communauté peut apprendre à reconsidérer ses propres valeurs. »

Le docteur croit que la déclaration des droits de l’enfant tel que rédigé par l’ONU (Organisation des Nations Unis) serait un bon commencement si on croit vouloir faire de quoi pour résoudre les problèmes de la pauvreté chez les enfants du Canada.

The Fondation encourages local community organizations to work with assorted city universities and local political organizations to help provide suitable environments for children. As a working example, it has already managed to get the city’s school commissions to open summer sessions for children who were already having problems with school work. Both he and the province’s DPJ are discussing recent judicial decisions as related to children and their immediate family relationships, and the doctor thinks people will have to reconsider traditional family relationships if anything is to be done about the problems faced by single parents and especially single mothers. After years of taking care of the city’s children, the doctor has seen more than enough blame passed around when a child’s life is ruined, but not enough responsibility to have made sure the child wasn’t harmed in the first place.

« C’est le devoir de la communauté de prendre la responsabilité du bien-être de ses enfants. Ce ne devrait pas être le travail d’un gouvernement, dit le docteur. On devrait voir ça comme un défi et non pas comme une corvée » Pour Julien et Steinmetz ça prend tout un village!