Their lives have been defined by trauma. Why kick kids out of foster care and group homes when they turn 18?

Posted on July 6, 2020 in Child & Family Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – News/GTA

At age five, she came to Canada with her family as a refugee.

When she was eight, she was sexually assaulted.

By 10, she was living with her best friend’s family for weeks at a time to escape what she describes as verbal and emotional abuse at home.

At 13, a violent outburst with her family landed her in a cell at a youth justice centre. Toronto children’s aid stepped in and moved her to a group home.

“It was the first real stability I had,” recalls Ratnam, 32. “I was shocked when they told me, at age 17, that I had to move out at 18. I had already suffered so much loss. I couldn’t believe it was happening again. I was completely unprepared.”

On June 25, the Ford government extended a pandemic-related moratorium on forcing young people like Ratnam out on their own. Until COVID-19, it was the rule — now suspended until Dec. 31 — that youth in care must move out of their foster or group home when they hit 18 and live independently, whether they are ready or not.

About 2,000 youths in extended society care (formerly known as Crown wards) turn 18 every year. The same moratorium also stops children’s aid societies from ending all financial and personal support at age 21.

Ratnam and other child advocates say the moratorium offers provincial officials time to rethink Ontario’s treatment of these vulnerable youths.

“Too many young people ‘age out’ to poverty, to homelessness. It’s a pipeline to the criminal justice system for some. And it exacerbates mental health conditions,” says Ratnam, co-founder of the non-profit Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition (OCAC).

“We shouldn’t look at age when cutting people off support,” Ratnam says. “We should be looking at readiness indicators. And at the end of the day, the most important person to ask if they are ready is the young person.”

Ontario’s child protection system serves a monthly average of 12,060 children and youths taken from abusive or neglectful parents and placed in foster or group homes, living in the community or in other care. Fifty children’s aid societies — 12 of them are Indigenous agencies — receive $1.5 billion annually in provincial funding to care for these children and to help many more who remain with their families.

Ratnam and Wendy Hayes co-founded the OCAC in 2018 when Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government axed the independent child advocate’s office in a move that was roundly criticized.

Established in 2007, the advocate’s office helped children and youth from Ontario’s child protection system plead their case for justice, love and support through legislative hearings and numerous projects, reports, reviews and investigations.

In the spirit of continuing that advocacy, Ratnam has co-authored a letter to Todd Smith, minister of children, community and social services, and associate minister Jill Dunlop, calling on the government to create a new approach to helping youth in care transition into adulthood.

“Young people, who(m) the moratoriums exist to protect, now urge you to extend them until there is a youth-informed strategy in place to continue to protect them through the uncertainty in their lives,” says the letter by Ratnam and co-author Conner Lowes of Youth in Care Canada, a national youth-led advocacy organization.

“Other people have their parents past 18, the least we can give Ontario’s … children (in the care of the province) is a chance to decide for themselves when they are ready,” they say. “We, the experts, recommend replacing age indicators with readiness indicators.”

Ratnam and Lowes want the government to meet with them as soon as possible “to discuss our request and how we might move forward together.”

Lowes, 19, who was forced to leave his Toronto foster home at age 18, says he was relatively lucky because he moved directly into a student residence at the University of Toronto, where he is studying philosophy and law.

“Many are still trying to find housing while still finishing high school,” he says. “Imagine the most difficult thing you’ve had to go through … and then imagine you didn’t have your parents to go through it with you. We go through this every day.”

Lowes says he hopes the government includes what he and Ratnam call “first voice advocates” — the experts — when future policy decisions are made.

“Just like any big decisions the government makes, they have experts at the table. So let’s get first voice advocates to help redesign the system,” he says.

“The reality is that after age 18, after foster kids and kids in care are kicked out, they don’t have their ‘parents’ anymore because the government isn’t supporting” the kids, Lowes says. “But everybody else gets to keep their parents.”

“The least Ontario could do is make sure their kids are ready” for this transition, he says.

If Ontario agreed to include first voice advocates, it would be “a huge step for youth in care in Ontario,” Lowes says. “And it would set a huge example for other provinces to follow.”

Nicole Bonnie, CEO of the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS), which represents 49 of the province’s 50 societies and Indigenous care agencies, says members know that “a one-size-fits-all approach does not support all young people’s chances for success.”

“We also know it disproportionately impacts youth from marginalized populations, including African Canadians, Indigenous, LGBT2SQ+ and those living with disabilities,” she says in an email to the Star.

Bonnie says the association is “supportive of those youth from care who have called on the government to extend the existing moratorium, meet with young people and develop a comprehensive and holistic protocol and policy for safe and supportive transitions out of the child welfare system.

“Meaningful change means listening and prioritizing their needs and supporting changes to the system based on what they have to say,” she adds.

A spokesperson for associate minister Dunlop says the government is aware Ontario’s child welfare system “has faced challenges for some time.”

“We are committed to listening and to finding approaches that respect the needs and identities of the children, youth, families and communities who use child welfare and residential services,” Alex Spence says in an email.

“To further, this work, the ministry would be pleased to meet with Cheyanne Ratnam and Conner Lowes to hear their proposed changes to how youth are supported when leaving care,” she says.

With everyone talking about getting used to “the new normal,” Ontario’s former child advocate Irwin Elman wants the province’s child welfare system to take this opportunity to decide what that new normal might look like for young people.

“Everybody knows what existed doesn’t work,” says Elman, who was completing his second and final five-year term as the province’s first independent child advocate when the office was scrapped.

Research shows people who grow up in the care of children’s aid societies are less likely to graduate from high school or go to university or college and more likely to experience unemployment, homelessness, poverty, mental health problems, young parenthood, poverty and the criminal justice system.

“Here’s the perfect opportunity to switch from an aging-out system to a benchmarked or outcomes-based system,” Elman says.

In most families, youth move out when they have a place to live, a stable source of income, a health card and other relevant identification, a family doctor, a dentist and mental health support, if they need it, as well as a personal network of friends and family, he notes.

“All these things should be in place before you can push a young person out of care,” he says.

Kim Snow, associate professor of child and youth care at Ryerson University, started an academic bridging program in 2005 for youth transitioning out of foster care and group homes.

Since then, the Voyager Program has enrolled 25 youths per year in grades 7 or 8 who can stay connected for as long as they want. The program has grown to more than 300 members, many between the ages of 21 and 35.

“Over the years, I have watched kids leave care and move into full-time jobs,” Snow says. “And I’ve seen kids with fetal alcohol syndrome leave without any ability to care for themselves. It’s illogical.”

“What I am hearing from young people is they are not ready, they are afraid and they end up in emergency rooms because of anxiety attacks,” she says.

Snow says the system needs to encourage more peer-to-peer mentoring and friendship development. Young people need to be “rooted” in schools, faith groups, clubs and sports. And no young person should leave the system without someone who cares deeply about them, she adds.

Snow and others say the impact of the pandemic on young adults from foster care and group homes between the ages of 21 and 35 — already struggling to make their way — has been “catastrophic.”

Some, between age 25 and 35, who have lost touch with all their support staff from their time in the system, and who were just starting their first jobs and getting on their feet, are reeling from becoming unemployed due to COVID-19, she adds.

And yet, most have few adults they can call on for support, she notes.

Many young adults are still living in their parents’ basements well into their mid-20s and early 30s, she notes.

“We took responsibility for these young people, and we need to follow through with each young person until they are on their feet,” Snow says. “Not until some date tosses them out the door, and we find them in jail or a shelter or on the street. No society can feel good about that.”

“With young people leading the charge, we are heading toward a moment of radical change that moves us away from a crisis-driven system that responds to abuse by removing kids, dislocating them and then repeating that cycle,” she says.

“Too many players are saying … we need to revision it in another way.”

Toronto-based Free2Be, a housing-first program that grew out of WoodGreen Community Services’ social innovation hub in 2018, was designed by youth transitioning out of the child welfare system and is based on unconditional support.

“It gives youth the opportunity to test and experiment … in a safe environment without the catastrophic consequences of rigid cut-off dates,” says program manager Erik Wexler.

“It’s a readiness-based model … that says we’re here as long as you need us to be here,” adds Wexler, 40, who did not grow up in the child welfare system, but was homeless for about a decade during his teens and early 20s.

Unlike most other programs for youth transitioning from care, Free2Be has no strings attached. Participants don’t need to be in school, attend counselling or connect with a mentor.

“You don’t need to give something, simply to get something back,” he says. “You deserve as much as anyone else deserves … So we are here to give.”

The program offers income support, rent and transportation subsidies. Participants also have access to WoodGreen’s wide variety of services, including homework help, tutoring, child care, employment counselling and youth wellness programs.

It is open to young people between the ages of 17 and 24, but once admitted, they can stay for as long as they need support, Wexler says. The program serves about 40, but is hoping to expand with federal funding to about 50 this year.

“We need to take this work more personally,” Wexler says. “These young people are our children. If we are responsible for them, we need to do better.”

Ratnam, an independent consultant and public speaker who has taught social work at Seneca College and worked on various initiatives including youth homelessness and sexual assault, says she still suffers from the trauma of “getting kicked out” of her home at 18.

In the emotional lead-up to that milestone birthday, her grades fell, forcing her to complete another year of high school while living on her own. Ratnam subsequently dropped out of college and spent another year in turmoil until she enrolled in the social service worker program at Centennial College where she found her “calling.” She now holds a master’s degree in social work from York University.

“I would have stayed at least another year or two,” she says of her time in the group home. “I want to make sure things change for other young people. The time is now.”

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