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Gutsy MLAs required to fix 'crazy' foster care system, says prof

Will B.C.'s Child and Youth in Care Week, which ends Saturday, June 8, raise enough awareness to break the connection between foster care and youth homelessness?

Stephen Gaetz hopes so –- but only if politicians get on board. Government is responsible for much of this mess, he said.

Over the past decade, the York University education professor has interviewed hundreds of homeless youth and young adults. What could possibly lead these teens to the street, he asked, given the hunger, sexual exploitation, the depression and violence associated with living rough?

The answer: foster care. In every study, he said, just over 40 per cent of homeless youth report spending some time in foster care -– a provincially run system that cares for kids who can't live with their families. Many more, he estimates, were affected by the child protection system.

"It's crazy," Gaetz said in a phone interview, "just totally crazy what we do. [Foster care is] just totally different from how we treat mainstream young people."

Part of the reason for the connection between foster care and homelessness, he noted, is that the system ditches most youth at 18 or 19. He'd never expect his own kids, who are university-aged, to make it on their own. Why does Ontario –-other jurisdictions in Canada including B.C. –- condemn so many vulnerable teens to homelessness?

In his new free ebook, Youth Homeless in Canada: Implications for Policy and Practice, Gaetz has collected 26 solutions-oriented articles which together, outline a serious plan for ending youth homelessness, and breaking the connection between foster care and the street.

Three steps to preventing foster care-related youth homelessness, he suggests, are:

- Keep kids in the system until they're really adults, perhaps to age 25, as Ontario's Child and Youth Advocate recommended in January 2013 and in other communications, since at least 2010

- Track outcomes from foster care much better -- for example, follow youth for five years after they leave the system –- so we know exactly how we're doing as guardians.

- Galvanize political leadership to create a real plan aimed at ending youth homelessness.

All of these are achievable by one group only, he said: government.

Gaetz is appalled that after so much research, over so many years, there's so little measurable change in outcomes.

"When as a politician there's no gain and it's not a vote-getting thing, it's hard to make it someone's priority," Gaetz said. "But that's what's gotta happen. Just one province, ending youth homelessness. Then the rest would follow."

This was B.C.'s third annual Child and Youth in Care Week. It's a partnership of the Ministry of Children and Family Development, the Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks, Adoptive Families Association, Federation of Aboriginal Foster Parents, the BC Federation of Foster Parents Associations and the Public Guardian and Trustee.

This May 14, Ontario celebrated its first Child and Youth in Care Day, though it has yet to be officially proclaimed by the legislative assembly.

In the U.S., May has been National Foster Care Month since 1988, when it was proclaimed by then-president Ronald Reagan.

"I really believe in champions," Gaetz said, noting the importance of events such as Child and Youth in Care Week. "I don't think homelessness gets taken up enough. In federal elections it never gets discussed. It's never a debate issue. Maybe people's attitudes about kids in care, and negative attitudes about teens, mean they don't care that much."

Pieta Woolley reports on solutions to breaking the link between foster care and youth homelessness for The Tyee Solutions Society. This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI), with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. TCI and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

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