Hazardous passage for at-risk youth [Foster Children]
Published On Fri May 21 2010. By Virginia Rowden
This is a story told in numbers.
There are nearly 4,700 young people — aged 16 to 20 — in the care of Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario.
Fewer than 600 are enrolled in college, trade schools or university — less than 13 per cent compared with 60 per cent of young people who have grown up with their own families. In fact, less than 45 per cent of youth in care will have graduated from high school by the time they are 20, compared with more than 79 per cent of young people who live with their parents.
It’s no surprise that youth in care do not do as well as other young people. They come into care because of abuse and neglect; they have suffered tragedy and loss. They experience significant challenges — behavioural, psychological, medical, emotional, intellectual, developmental. Eighty-two per cent have clinically diagnosed special needs and 49 per cent have behavioural issues.
Yet youth leaving care report that the most difficult issues they face are not these crippling problems but the simple lack of emotional support from the very system that is supposed to launch them into the adult world.
That’s because the foster care system in Ontario forces youth to leave home before their 18th birthday.
At 17, they must plan to leave what has become their family home, set up an apartment, shop, cook, clean, do laundry, establish credit to get utilities and cable — and work part-time to survive. Youth “aging out of care” are expected to deal with some of life’s most stressful transitions in less than one year. It is little wonder they are not graduating from high school with their peers and heading off to college or university.
To remedy this, the newly released and highly credible report of the Laidlaw Foundation, Not so Easy to Navigate, recommends a better approach to establishing Registered Education Savings Programs (RESP) for children in foster care. The plan is to level the playing field for youth in care so that they have some of the same opportunities to fund post-secondary education as other young people in our province. It also recommends mechanisms to help these youth and their support workers navigate the complicated system of supports that already exist in Ontario.
These are worthy objectives. Such measures, added to a number of other steps recently taken by the Ontario government to help youth in care achieve higher education, will make a difference.
If we can get them out of high school first.
For many youth in care, providing an RESP or other post-secondary financial assistance in isolation is like offering professional hockey equipment to someone who hasn’t yet learned to skate.
The hard truth is that, haven taken into care our most fragile and damaged children at 8 or 12 or 15, we then expect them miraculously to become fully functioning adults before the age of 18. In an environment where far less challenged young people routinely enjoy the emotional and financial benefits of family life well into their twenties, they are left largely to their own devices.
The result of this pre-emptory disconnection from family is predictable — studies in other jurisdictions report increased homelessness, depression, unemployment and criminal involvement among those who have been in care.
To its credit, the Laidlaw report also acknowledges that youth need more time to successfully make the transition to adulthood. It recommends that Ontario’s Extended Care and Maintenance (ECM) program for youth who have been in care, which provides a monthly allowance and contact with their worker to those aging out of care and leaving the family home, be extended from age 21 to age 25.
Again, a worthwhile recommendation.
But, as advocates for vulnerable youth and for the society which must live with and pay for the negative outcomes of their early experiences, we think the Laidlaw report doesn’t go far enough.
We believe that this province should change foster care rules to allow youths to remain in the family home until 21 or until they have completed their education. It should provide health and dental care until youth have achieved a stable job. We should encourage adoption as an option for older youth. And we should promote subsidized legal guardianship as an option to achieve the goal of a legal parent who provides the most important thing that Ontario’s youth in care have told us that they need: a supportive adult during the transition from care to independence.
Leading researchers have clearly demonstrated that staying in foster care to 21 as opposed to leaving care before 18 results in better high-school completion rates and grades, lower rates of teen pregnancy, more permanent jobs, less involvement in crime and better use of mental health services.
The numbers tell the story. As a community, we can make the decent and humane choice now to support the cost of emotional, financial and educational assistance for youth standing at the edge of adulthood. Or we can continue to abruptly cut youth loose and pay the considerable societal cost later.
Virginia Rowden is director, social policy, and mentor for the YouthCAN program, Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies.
< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/812464–hazardous-passage-for-at-risk-youth >