The smell of toast makes Samantha Sam sad.
It reminds her of the group homes where she grew up.
Sam was five when she was taken away from her mom the first time.
Her memories of this are spotty, a collection of freeze-framed images:
Flashlights beamed into her eyes in the middle of the night, when staff checked on the children.
A man with deformed hands who gave her baths.
A foster home that only lasted a few weeks, where the family made her leave the room while they kneeled to pray.
Alarms that rang when she opened the bedroom door at night to pee.
And in the morning, waking up to the smell of toast.
Sam was in and out of group homes most of her life, following the cycle of drugs and abuse that haunted her mother.
Her memories of home are more vivid.
“There was a bad man who went into my room and ate me with his mouth,” she said.
“I was too scared to pull up the covers.”
Her mom’s boyfriend beat up her mom when she was pregnant, breaking her leg in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
And Sam remembers when her baby brother died.
The coroner called it sudden infant death syndrome.
Sam remembers the four-month-old screaming and screaming while her mom’s trashed boyfriend held a pillow over his tiny face.
All these memories still bash around in Sam’s head making her squeeze her eyes shut.
It’s afternoon at Angel’s Nest youth shelter, where Sam works, cooking and cleaning for kids who’ve shared a lot of the same experiences.
The group home children spend a lot of time on the street.
“When I was at the receiving home, I started drinking lots,” said Sam.
She was 11 years old, at the time.
“A group of us started breaking into places and stealing stuff, breaking windows.
“I didn’t care, because I didn’t want to be there.”
She was raped that year, on the clay cliffs.
By the time she was 12, Sam was getting $6.50 a week for allowance.
“We’d put all our money together and buy a 40 (of hard liquor),” she said.
Then Sam met the crack dealers.
One of them lived across from 16 Klondike, the Riverdale group home where she was placed.
Kicked out of school, and forced out of the group home during school hours, Sam started “car shopping” to get money for crack.
She was 13.
While kids her age were in Grade 8 learning algebra and reading One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Sam was graduating from crack and taking ecstasy as an elective.
“I took 14 tabs of E one night and almost bit my tongue in half,” she said.
Sam had a social worker, but meetings were quick and impersonal.
And staff at the receiving home and later the group home didn’t have much one-on-one time with the kids.
“We’d barricade ourselves in our rooms so we could smoke in there,” said Sam.
“We hid our knives in the chimney so they weren’t confiscated.
“And we used to fill butt cans with water and shampoo and dump them on staff.”
Looking back on it, Sam, now 19, isn’t sure why she did those things.
“I just always felt lonely,” she said.
While Sam was being shuffled from group home to group home, the Yukon government was sitting on a report written by Jim Anglin called, Their Future Begins Today: Yukon Residential Care Review.
Completed in 2001, when Sam was 10 years old, the Anglin report called for radical change in Yukon group homes.
In the next two to three years, both 16 Klondike and the children’s receiving home, which holds up to 15 kids, “should be replaced by smaller home-style group care facilities (for one to two kids),” said the report.
It would take nine years before the aging, mouldy receiving home was replaced by a new, sterile, institutional building, where alarms go off when kids open the windows.
And 16 Klondike, where Sam was living when she was introduced to crack and later ecstasy, is still in operation, despite the report’s recommendations to shut it down nine years ago.
It wasn’t very homey, said Sam.
She wasn’t even allowed to open the fridge.
At 14, Sam was sent out of the territory to Ranch Ehrlo, a Regina-based nonprofit that offers assessment and treatment for children in care.
Since 2001, when Anglin’s report came out, the territorial government has spent more than $6.5 million sending kids to Ranch Ehrlo, money that could have been used to build the “more family-style homes” called for in the report.
“Those young people can benefit from such a family environment,” said the report.
Ranch Ehrlo was an institution.
“It was like high school, except we sat around at the end of the day talking about what we did wrong,” said Sam, who credits the ranch for some of her cooking skills.
When Sam came back from Saskatchewan, she was 16.
It was a memorable year – her mom died and Social Services sent Sam out on her own.
The Anglin report recommends one to two years of semi-independent living, prior to moving youth into independent living situations.
Foster homes “need to be developed for adolescents who require an intensive period of preparation for independent living,” it says.
Instead, Social Services rented Sam an apartment.
“I partied so much, I was evicted after a month,” she said.
At 18, she was back in the receiving home.
“But they didn’t want me because I was old and none of the staff liked me,” she said.
So Sam was shifted to a room in a building like the Barracks, where she shared shower and kitchen facilities with a lot of older men, many struggling with addictions.
The place was picked out and paid for by Health and Social Services.
Sam didn’t have a job, a bus pass or even clean laundry.
“I didn’t feel like a human,” she said.
“I was crying every day and so depressed.”
Evicted again, Sam ended up in a room at the Stratford Motel, still under the care of Social Services.
A month later, she was kicked out for partying.
Then, in July, she was hired on at Angel’s Nest.
For the first time in her life, Sam was given purpose and a routine.
And she’s been living at Kaushee’s Place for the past eight months – after getting punched in the face while couch surfing – which has added some stability.
The Anglin report recommended long-term, stable placements.
Children in care also need well-trained staff, “effective supervision” and programming.
“Children respond best to an active, planful and participatory approach to their involvement in a variety of daily living, recreational, creative arts and ceremonial activities,” says the report.
While she was in group homes, Sam didn’t even go to school.
“We just hung out on the streets, or drank with people on the clay cliffs,” she said.
Only now has school become her rock.
Sam’s studying at Yukon College -“to help kids like me,” she said.
She’d like to get a job in a group home some day, although she knows it wouldn’t be easy dealing with children like her.
“It’s a dangerous job,” she said.
Sam’s seen kids go after staff with hockey sticks.
“It’s almost like living in a dysfunctional family,” said Sam’s boss and Angel’s Nest founder Victoria Durrant.
“That’s the saddest thing, these kids are taken away from a home that is dysfunctional and put into an institution that is dysfunctional.”
Sam wants to change this.
The first thing she wants is for Angel’s Nest to run as a 24-hour youth shelter offering kids beds, counselling, addictions support, food, friendship and security.
But for the last two years, the territorial government has refused it funding.
Health Minister Glenn Hart says he fears the Angel’s Nest proposal does not address the possibility of misbehaving clients.
After touring a couple youth shelters Outside, Hart says he was impressed by the need for high level security, with potential clients kept behind locked doors and Plexiglas windows until they are assessed.
Durrant shakes her head and pulls out her dog-eared copy of the Anglin report.
She’s highlighted some sections that stress the need for compassion, respect, and involving young people in the choices that impact their lives.
The Anglin report also called for a child’s advocate – a position that was finally tacked onto the new Yukon Child and Family Services Act only after a public outcry in 2008.
It’s all too much for Sam.
Talking about her life hasn’t been easy.
And looking at a nine-year-old report with recommendations, that if followed, would have eliminated a lot of her hurt hasn’t helped.
Sam excuses herself to go cook dinner for the kids at Angel’s Nest.
On her way out, she admits she’s still lonely.
“I always am,” said Sam.
“But all I can do is go to school.
“I can’t take on the world.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at