Ontario’s Youth Leaving Care hearings call for fundamental change to child welfare system

Posted on May 15, 2012 in Child & Family Policy Context

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TheStar.com – news
Published On Mon May 14 2012.   Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter

Ontario’s child welfare system needs fundamental change to address the isolation, vulnerability and abandonment experienced by too many children in foster care and group homes, says a groundbreaking report written by youth about their plight.

The report, based on unprecedented legislative hearings last fall by youth from the child welfare system, calls on the province and others to work with them to produce an action plan by November.

The goal is to make Ontario a better parent to roughly 8,300 children and youth in its care and make their transition to adulthood more secure.

The report being released Monday at Queen’s Park, says the government should act immediately to raise the age of financial and emotional support from 21 to 25; allow youth to stay in foster care beyond age 18; and declare a “Youth in Care Day” to raise awareness and reduce stigma.

The province should also develop ongoing health and education plans for every child and youth in care; collect and publish information on their experiences during and after they leave care; and create an online clearing house of information and resources for them, the report says.

“Every child and youth deserves to feel and know that we are loved and cared for,” says the report, based on almost 200 submissions from young people during two days of hearings last November. “We are vulnerable youth and need more than a system of policies for this to happen.”

The hearings arose from the youth’s need for “our parent — the province — to listen and to understand the struggles around leaving care.”

The trauma of their young lives, coupled with frequent moves in foster care leave too many ill-equipped for adulthood.

Just 44 per cent complete high school. As adults they are more likely to experience poverty and homelessness, suffer mental health problems and become involved with the criminal justice system.

Youth are counting on Ontarians to listen and act, said Wendy, 20, one of the hearing’s four youth leaders.

Her support from Durham Region Children’s Aid ends in August when she turns 21.

(As with the legislative hearings, only first names are being used to protect the youth and respect the often harrowing nature of their experiences.)

“I think people who read the report will begin to understand what the struggles are and how it can get better,” Wendy said in an interview.

“We were focused on the issue of leaving care (at age 18 and 21), but there are a lot of things that happen during care that affect what happens to you after,” she said. “It really starts from the day we enter care.”

Wendy, who was removed from her substance-abusing parents when she was 13, said she was “lucky.” She was only moved twice and is still living with her current foster parents who treat her like a daughter. Unlike most youth who leave the system at age 18 or 21 with no permanent family, she knows the love of her foster parents is unconditional and forever.

“I have not moved out, nor will I have to when I turn 21,” she said. “When I do move out, I always have them as a safety net to go back to if times get rough, or just to spend the night on the holidays.

“We need to look at how I got here,” she added. “For me it was a stroke of luck. But we can’t rely on a stroke of luck.”

The report, entitled My REAL Life Book, reflects six main themes of youth who addressed the hearings, including feelings of vulnerability, isolation and being “left out” of decision-making about their lives. The unpredictability of foster care and group home arrangements, the struggle when care ends, and the lack of one meaningful adult relationship to carry them into adulthood are also highlighted.

Lindsay, 20, who entered foster care with her younger sister in New Liskeard, Ont. when she was 14, said she is often overwhelmed by loneliness and isolation.

Initially, she thought life away from her addicted and abusive single mother would be better. And in many ways it was: Her foster parents provided love, stability and the expectation that she would go to university and become a successful adult.

But she said it felt odd to be excluded from her foster family’s vacations. And restrictions such as needing her Children’s Aid approval to go on sleepovers or ride in a car driven by adults other than her foster parents, always reminded her of her Crown ward status.

Like most youth in care, Lindsay moved out on the day she turned 18 when the province’s legal responsibility for her ended and her foster parents no longer received funding to support her.

“On my 18th birthday I woke up in my foster home and that night I went home to a completely different place,” she recalled of the student rooming house where she rented a room with the help of a modest monthly allowance from Children’s Aid.

Suddenly she was living on her own and juggling a part-time job while trying to complete Grade 12. Her grades slipped and she didn’t graduate that year. Her delayed transition to college wasn’t any easier and she dropped out after first semester. Although she is back in college now, her shaky start means she may not finish by next May when she turns 21 and loses all financial and emotional support from Children’s Aid.

Lindsay, one of seven youth who wrote the report, longs to go to university after college, but doesn’t know how she will manage unless the government acts on the report’s recommendation to raise the age of support to age 25.

As she says in the report: “All we’re asking for is for four more years. Four more years of care to find people who matter to us, who don’t fall into the circle of the unhealthy lifestyle we’ve been born into.”

Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, Irwin Elman, released a research report earlier this year that showed the $26 million annual price tag to extend support to age 25 for youth in the child welfare system would be more than recouped through reduced jail and social assistance costs and increased tax revenue as they are better able to complete their education and get good jobs.

Over 40 years, the return on this investment would amount to $132 million in current dollars, the report said.

Elman says Monday’s report is an opportunity for the province to “do right by its kids.”

“We can move when we want to. I don’t think 60 days to appoint a panel and another 60 or 70 days to create a blueprint is too much to ask,” he said.

In a statement, Minister of Children and Youth Services, Eric Hoskins, called the hearings and the report “without precedent,” “groundbreaking” and “brave.” He will respond formally on behalf of the government Monday.

* Almost 17,000 of Ontario’s 3.1 million children are in the care of Children’s Aid Societies

* Of these children, the province is legal guardian to more than 8,300 Crown wards who have been permanently removed from their parents due to abuse or neglect.

* The average annual cost of maintaining a child in foster care is $45,000

* Just 44 per cent of youth in care graduate from high school

* 81 per cent of all Ontario youth graduate from high school

* 43 per cent of homeless youth have been involved with the child welfare system

* 68 per cent of homeless youth come from foster homes or group homes

* 82 per cent of children in child welfare have diagnosed special needs

Source: My REAL Life Book, Report from the Youth Leaving Care Hearings

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