Youth ‘aging out’ of care deserve better. The Ford government needs to deliver real reform

Posted on March 23, 2021 in Child & Family Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorial

To lose one’s home, caregivers and financial supports creates turmoil even in the best of times. Expecting teenagers to go through that in the midst of a pandemic is unfathomable.

So Ontario’s Ford government did a very good thing last year when it suspended youth “aging out” of the child-welfare system and more recently extended that moratorium until at least the end of September.

The government has also indicated that it will use that time to redesign the system and replace hard and fast age cut-offs, which don’t properly account for the differing needs of young people, with “a model that’s going to work for them.”

It’s vital the province gets this next step right. There are many longstanding problems with the child-welfare system and the promises and efforts of previous governments have not turned it into a system that supports children to achieve their best outcomes rather than one that just sends them on their way when their time is up.

Some 12,000 children and youth live in foster homes and group homes in Ontario. About 2,000 of them turn 18 every year at which point they are usually forced to move out of their foster or group home to live independently, whether they’re ready or not. (There is financial assistance and other supports beyond 18 for some youth but it’s not universal and it’s not enough.)

A great many of those young people are not remotely ready to live independently — in large part because the system that’s supposed to care for them hasn’t done the work necessary to make them ready for that step.

The results, not surprisingly, are dismal. People who grow up in the care of children’s aid societies are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to experience unemployment and rely on social assistance. They are less likely to go to college or university and more likely to experience homelessness, poverty and the justice system.

It’s counter-productive and profoundly unjust to spend billions of dollars on a child-welfare system only to later dump youth on the street, ill-prepared and without the ongoing supports they need to enjoy successful lives as adults.

It’s good, then, to hear Jill Dunlop, the associate minister of children and women’s issues, say the government intends to reform the system so it works for youth and will “ensure that the supports are there.”

But this is also the government that promised to fix Ontario’s autism program and then made it worse. Two years later, it’s still making announcements about fixing and improving programs and services for children with autism and their beleaguered families.

And the government that axed the child and youth advocate office, which played a proactive role in protecting and improving the lives of vulnerable children and youth.

So the Ford government should also expect a fair bit of skepticism about its plans and whether it will manage to get the needed changes right.

The best way to put that to rest is by truly listening to the youth themselves and the community groups long dedicated to working with them. They know best the impact of transitory care experiences, of moving through too many placements and social workers until the moment they “age out” unprepared to live and support themselves independently.

They are the ones who know where all the holes are in the current system and what it will take, not just to patch them up, but to build something better. The government should be prepared to act on what it hears.

The Ford government has hit on the right problem. Now it just has to follow through with the right solutions.

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