A better idea for foster kids

TheStar.com – Opimion/Editorial
Published On Sun May 23 2010

Most young people enjoy emotional and financial support from their families while they finish high school, go on to college or university, get a stable job and try to find their place in the world.

These days, parents do not expect – or even want – their children to move out of the house on their 18th birthday, the day they technically become adults. So why does the government expect that of our most vulnerable young people?

By provincial law, children in the care of the state must move out of their foster or group homes before their 18th birthday, whether they have finished high school or not. They are given financial assistance to live on their own, but that is cut off at 21, regardless of their circumstances.

The consequences of this unsupportive and premature launch into adulthood for a group of young people who have already suffered significant trauma in their lives are, predictably, not good.

Fewer than 45 per cent of foster children complete high school by age 21, and only about 20 per cent of those go on to pursue post-secondary education. By comparison more than 79 per cent of Ontario youth graduate from high school.

Last week, a report by the Laidlaw Foundation urged Ottawa to establish registered education savings plans (RESPs) for children in foster care, similar to those that parents set up for their own children. The report rightly identifies the transforming effect that making college financially possible could have on Crown wards.

While such a change would be helpful for the minority with the academic credentials to attend a post-secondary institution, the province needs to take further steps to give these youths a better chance of just getting through high school.

As Virginia Rowden of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies said in a piece on the Star‘s Opinion page last week, putting aside money for university tuition for Crown wards, without additional steps, is like “offering professional hockey equipment to someone who hasn’t yet learned to skate.”

Right now, we are forcing these children into the adult world too early and without sufficient support. It is unreasonable to expect any child to cut ties with home before they are 18 and still succeed in life.

It is a particularly counterproductive practice for Crown wards who have experienced difficult childhoods, including abuse and neglect, and have high incidences of special needs.

Children’s aid agencies have long urged the province to let children stay in their foster or group homes until they are 21. The Laidlaw Foundation’s report argues that financial assistance should be extended to 25. Both measures would provide a more supportive and gradual transition into adulthood – similar to what most children get from their parents.

Children’s Minister Laurel Broten has heard these recommendations. “We know there’s more we need to do,” her spokesperson says. But we’ve heard that line before. It is time the government moves from talking about doing more to actually doing it.

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