Ontario bill would extend child welfare services to older youth
TheStar.com – News/Queen’s Park – A proposal to ensure access to child welfare services until age 18 is the centrepiece of Bill 88, known as the Youth Right-to-Care bill, which is moving through the Ontario
Nov 29 2013. By: Chethan Sathya
Abused teenagers in Ontario may soon have access to crucial support services now that a private member’s bill to raise the “age of protection” for children has won the support of the government.
The proposal from Progressive Conservative MPP Rod Jackson to ensure access to child welfare services until age 18 is the centrepiece of Bill 88, known as the Youth Right-to-Care bill, which is moving through the legislature with support of all parties.
Ontario — unlike Alberta, Manitoba, B.C. and Quebec — currently only allows for the protection of children under the age of 16.
Under the present rules, children’s aid societies cannot take in 16- or 17-year olds unless they are already under the care of a protective society because of past abuses, according to Virginia Rowden of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. Children already “in the system” can receive services until the age of 21 — but children in need of help for the first time after their 16th birthday are out of luck.The gap has enormous consequences for many youngsters. If a 16- or 17-year-old in Ontario leaves home because of abuse and seeks help at a child protection society, they must be turned down.
Such rejection, the bill’s proponents argue, could mean the difference between receiving child welfare services, such as financial and housing support, and living on the street.
For youth forced to leave their homes, access to child welfare services is crucial, says Jackson. “Most of these children struggle to stay in school while having to survive from day to day,” he says.
Studies show that these children, who often live on the street or in shelters, have higher rates of incarceration, substance abuse, depression, and hospitalizations due to high-risk street behaviours, Jackson adds.
Child abuse remains a concern. In Ontario, child-maltreatment investigations were conducted on about 54 children out of every 1,000 in 2008, according to the Child Welfare Research Portal.
Child welfare provides numerous services related to foster care, finances, health care, and counselling that are tailored to children in a way that the adult welfare system cannot match, says Rowden. Once a child turns 16 he or she is considered to be an adult in the Ontario welfare system, and is treated as such.
“No 16-year-old, who has had a difficult childhood, is prepared to care for themselves in a way that will lead to a meaningful contribution to society,” says Jackson.
According to Johanna Macdonald, a lawyer for the non-profit legal aid clinic Justice for Youth and Children, many of these teens are forced to live on the streets, in shelters or jail. Their only option for financial support is the adult welfare system, which is difficult to access for anyone who is not legally an adult, or to sue their parents.
Alicia, a 17-year-old who left her family in P.E.I. because she no longer felt safe at home, has struggled to find help since coming to Toronto. “There is nowhere to go for someone my age. I try my best to get into shelters, but its not easy,” says Alicia, who wouldn’t divulge her last name.
She says there sometimes isn’t room for her to get into a shelter. When she does stay in shelters, she says most of the occupants are adults, giving her no opportunity to find peers close to her age or to get any sort of age-appropriate support.
“After hearing about Bill 88, I wish those services were available to me. I think I’d be in a very different place if they were,” she says.
Pressure to solve this gap has been growing at Queen’s Park. Jackson was inspired to make a difference after the “Youth Leaving Care Hearings” two years ago, when youth came together to give testimony and recommend changes to the child welfare system. A statement from the action plan reads, “It is essential and urgent that the ministry extends the age of protection to 18.”
When asked why Ontario’s government has not made this change in the last 10 years, Jackson believes there are no political reasons, just inaction. According to Rowden, the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies has been advocating for this change for years, but has never received an official response.
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Children and Youth Services says the province has made significant progress on other issues, “making it possible for youth 16 and up who left children’s aid societies to return and receive . . . the support they need until they turn 21.”
Jackson expects his bill to save the government money.
According to an economic analysis from Justice for Youth and Children, the cost of supporting youth is between $6,500 and $8,000 per homeless youth per month, in contrast to $1,000 per month for youth receiving services from child welfare.
Bill 88 passed through a second reading with unanimous support, and is scheduled to be debated at a Queen’s Park committee Dec. 4. The bill has support from major child welfare advocacy groups including the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies and the Provincial Advocate for Children.
Despite being a private member’s bill, it has support of Jackson’s own party, including party leader Tim Hudak. The government has also signalled support, with the Minister of Children and Youth Services Teresa Piruzza, saying, “We have acknowledged that a gap exists for . . . youth aged 16 and 17 and we are supporting Bill 88.”
As Jackson sees it, this bill could make a world of difference to teens such as Alicia. “Look them in the eye and tell them that you don’t care and you’re going to slam the door on them . . . Many of them have the worst outcome. That’s the saddest part,” he says.
Chethan Sathya is a fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and a surgical resident at the University of Toronto.
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