MPPs should heed advice from youth who survived the care system – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Mon May 14 2012.   Ken Dryden

Some young people who have grown up in a mix of broken families, foster homes and group homes deliver a report to the Ontario legislature Monday. Their lives often don’t turn out as well as those of other youth. They think legislators should know that.

About 15 years ago, I received money from a youth charity to give to a youth charity of my choice. I might have given it to groups I had already worked with or knew. But this was a chance again to ask the most basic question: Given all the kids who have needs, who needs help the most?

I asked the advice of people in foundations and other community groups. The most “disadvantaged” of the “disadvantaged,” they agreed, were kids from foster homes and group homes. What these kids needed was a chance, in their words, to “break the cycle” of a family history of poverty and abuse that often went back generations. Their best chance to do this? To go to university or college.

We’ve given out more than 140 scholarships in the years since.

Even when you know these young people’s stories, they strike you with surprise. Not so much the details of parents who have mental illness, alcoholism or drug abuse, but what the day-after-day, year-after-year implications of living with someone with those problems feels like. Yet many of these youth somehow — almost never without big setbacks — reach their last year of high school. Now they are thinking, hoping, dreaming, of university and a future that never was to be. This is their one-way ticket out.

We talk a lot now about the cost of post-secondary education. Imagine as a student trying to meet that challenge if your parents can’t help you out. If they aren’t around to use their contacts to get you a summer job. If there’s no home to return to in the summer even if it’s only not to have four additional months of room and board to pay for. But these youth find a way — big student loans, scholarships — because to them if they’ve made it this far, they’re not not going to go to college or university! This is their chance.

But for them things take longer. Switching foster homes and schools eight times in three years sets them back a year. To pay for college, they need to work a part-time job 20 hours a week, not 10. So they take one fewer course — this year, and next year too. They take a year off to work to save money. Their mother has a relapse. Even though their mother has brought to them little more than misery, she’s the only mother they have. So they leave school for a term to take care of her.

For these youth, without much beneath them to brace their fall when things go wrong — and they do in every kid’s life — the slide is farther, steeper and harder. If gap years and changing majors have made 25 the new 21 for many youth, real life has made it this way for them.

This is what their report speaks of. But first they had to go through some process. They decided if no one else was going to hold hearings for them, they would hold them for themselves, and tell their own story — and they did: for two days last November in the Ontario legislature. In doing so, they were supported by the office of the provincial advocate for children and youth. Their report rarely sounds overdramatized, almost always authentic — exactly what any legislator needs to make the right decisions.

Perhaps most remarkable are the group’s recommendations; or more accurately, their recommendation. In-care youth experience things at a young age things that many others never do until they’re much older, if at all. They make decisions for themselves — about what to eat, what to buy, when to go to bed — that only adults usually make. Yet the big decisions in their life — whether they need to stay with their parents or be put into care; who their foster parents will be; or when they are ready to fly on their own, finally and forever — none of these decisions they make themselves. They’re all made by others.

So their recommendation:

The Province of Ontario should recognize that the current system needs to fundamentally change to better prepare young people in care to succeed. [It] should work with young people in and from care and other stakeholders to complete an ACTION PLAN FOR FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE by November 2012 that addresses our concerns and goals.

The six other “In the meantime” recommendations, as they put it, are all written in smaller print. They talk, among other things, of raising the age for which youth receive extended care and maintenance from 21 to 25, and allowing youth to stay in foster care until they decide themselves when they’re ready to leave. I don’t know if these have merit, or their counter-arguments, or the best way to achieve the goals that need to be achieved. But I do know that the first recommendation, the only one written in big print, is right. Sometimes, it’s not just what you do, but howyou do it.

These youth created their own hearings, wrote their own report, and told their own story better than anyone else could. Now they need to be part of a working group that includes parliamentarians to write an action plan for their future. It’s theirlife.

Ken Dryden served as federal minister of social development under prime minister Paul Martin from July 2004 to February 2006.

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