Looking back, moving forward: Former ED Barbara Brett reflects on Family Services’ past

If you peruse the annual reports over the past 85 years, every executive director talks about change, both as a constant and as the driver for advancements and progress within Family Services.

Barbara Brett, executive director from 1981 to 1996, knows this all too well. During her years as ED, the agency expanded rapidly, eventually growing from a just under $1 million agency to an almost $13 million agency. “What really helped was that the government was looking for agencies that they could partner with for child welfare services,” she says. “The ministry always was the gatekeeper for core child welfare services, but they were looking for agencies for counselling, parenting programs, alcohol and addictions services and street youth services. It helped the agency grow and grow rapidly in that era.”

It made the agency broader, helped build infrastructure and develop more community based programs. Those years were also a time of tremendous social change. “The agency was always at the forefront in terms of reflecting changing mores and awareness,” she says. “It was, and still is, a generalist agency, that’s always been based on the needs of the client.” The economic recession of the early 80s saw an increasing complexity of case loads. Local media outlets ran several articles on the impact of unemployment on the family. In the October 3, 1983 edition of the The Magazine, she was quoted: “We’ve been seeing families with problems related to unemployment since early spring. It’s becoming a very big part of the problems couples face. Economic problems can exacerbate the problems a family has had, especially where the wife has to go to work when she really doesn’t want to.”

The idea of the family was changing too. The concept of the traditional nuclear family was shifting with blended families, families led by gay and lesbian parents, and single parent families. With more immigration came different cultures where extended family and three generations were living together.

“My own view of families has changed, you see people in all the diversity how they live their lives,” she notes. “The staff was always good at being responsive to this diversity and adapting to the needs of the clients.”

Youth homelessness and vulnerability were two issues that also came to the forefront. The “Real Men don’t buy kids” was a stark poster campaign aimed at potential customers of child prostitutes. About a year prior, a new law had passed making procuring sexual services from a person under the age of 18 an indictable offence.

It also led to the opening of the Detached Youth Program in New Westminster and SafeHouse in Vancouver.

As a sign of the times, the 1994/95 Annual Report noted “Project Parent supplied over 11,000 diapers and served over 13,000 meals. Our street youth programs distributed over 34,000 condoms.”

She’s very proud of the accomplishments of the agency during those years. “Our reputation and visibility grew for youth programs, drug and alcohol treatment programs, multicultural services and family and domestic violence. The agency was always able to attract really skilled clinicians who are really good at what they do.I think it’s an important agency, a distinguished agency. It strives to meet people’s needs, meets people where they are and try to help.”