MCFD social worker Karen Zilke tries to convince a homeless 17-year-old on a Vancouver sidewalk to join her for breakfast at a nearby restaurant.
Her goal is to move the young woman into a safe house so she can get into a drug rehab program and find a permanent place to live. The youth quickly changes, puts on her make-up and joins Karen for a meal, but refuses to go with her to the safe house.
“She’s been through tremendous trauma but has a great sense of humour. She has nobody else in her life, but we can joke around and I just love her. I never get tired of hanging out with her and other young people.”
Zilke will keep trying to reach out to the teen and to others in her role of helping sexually exploited youth. She works in a unique partnership with the Vancouver Police in the downtown area.
Karen and her partner, Detective Constable Kevin Parkinson, cruise the Vancouver streets in an unmarked police car, dubbed Yankee 20, to assist at-risk youth and liaise with all agencies serving youth. Recently, they were honoured for their work with the Community Partner Award from the Children of the Street Society for helping to combat sexual exploitation and human trafficking of children and youth in our community.
“Karen is a very inspiring social worker,” says Sheila Robinson, MCFD executive director of services for the Vancouver region. “She has a wealth of knowledge and is known for her tenacious and creative approach to working with youth. Karen has adapted to the changing needs of youth over the years, her commitment to social work and the youth she serves continues to be impressive.”
“It’s all about building relationships with youth and other agencies to find the best way to move a kid into safety, Zilkie explains. I have an incredible army of people who will do what they have to do to save lives.”
Zilke, who has been a social worker for 30 years, has been working specifically with street youth since 1992. Guided by police calls and reports of missing kids, she has noticed changes over the years in how kids are manipulated by sexual predators.
“Fifteen years ago there was a kiddie stroll area. Now people connect with kids electronically, and the biggest concern for me is that kids are getting younger – I’m seeing 12- and 13-year-olds now doing drugs and blacking out from drinking. As well, a lot of the kids are transient, not just from the suburbs but from other provinces and countries.”
On a positive note, Zilke says there are now more options and supports for street youth. “I have community partners who are very educated and skilled. I’m thrilled to see the young social workers we are recruiting – they have great passion and smarts.”
What keeps me going is knowing how blessed I am to work with such an amazing community and to have so many people around to help me with anything like finding a bed at detox. It’s a beautiful ebb and flow of community.”
And with community support Karen will keep trying to convince the homeless young woman to move into a safe house.