You're 19, officially an adult. Happy birthday. Now get out of the house.
As parents, few of us would take such a brutal approach. Yet in our role as citizens that is exactly the style we adopt toward teenagers "in care" of the Crown -- for whom the government is, institutionally speaking, their legal "parent."
If you have been under any of the forms of "care" the province provides for such kids -- in foster care, a group home, or living independently with some kind of structured financial support -- the day you turn 19 you "age out" of eligibility for that care. The government's responsibility for you abruptly ends. For nearly nine out of 10 such kids, that means you'll be kicked out of your home, or if you've been living on your own, the cheques from the province stop coming.
Johnny, who would rather withhold his last name, discovered what that feels like a little over two years ago. He turned 19 the week before Christmas. Now 21, he recalls spending Christmas Eve lying alone on a mattress surrounded by fighting and drugs at a shelter in downtown Vancouver.
It probably wasn't the lowest point in his young life. Johnny's childhood was scarred by rape and beatings. The bruises they left failed to get the attention of his public school teachers or anyone else in his suburban community, he recalls. After a stint in a psychiatric facility when he was 16, the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) -- which administers or contracts out the government's institutional child care -- provided him with foster families, then group homes, and finally a support contract that paid his rent and expenses as he finished high school. Then Johnny turned 19 and was unceremoniously evicted from his apartment, he said.
Over the next couple of years, Johnny, who is aboriginal but doesn't have status, shuttled between shelters. Now, he's living on a Fraser Valley reserve where he collects welfare and helps out around the community.
His story is disturbingly familiar to children "parented" by the public through the intervention of the Crown.
Strikingly, the ministry doesn't keep track of how many of its graduates end up on the street. But examining the question from the other end, Vancouver's McCreary Centre Society found in 2007 that 40 per cent of "street-involved youth" had spent at least some time in government care. "[A]lmost one in 10 (nine per cent) were in foster or a group home at the time of the survey."
Like Johnny, few such kids meet typical middle-class goals even before their 19th birthday. Nearly two-thirds fail to complete high school within the standard four years after starting Grade 8. By the time they reach 19, more than 40 per cent have been recommended for criminal charges, according to Lauren Freedman, a PhD student in Criminology at Simon Fraser University who studies foster teens and the criminal justice system. According to a report in 2012, roughly half of kids in permanent care of the province were in special education programs at school.
A half billion dollar preparation for the street
Every year, about 1,100 kids in various kinds of government care turn 19. Within six months, nearly half (49 per cent) apply for income assistance -- two-thirds of those for disability assistance the rest for welfare, according to an email from MCFD communications. A handful, slightly more than one in 10 (about 12 per cent), receive continuing support in the form of either a living stipend of up to about $1,100 per month or annual postsecondary education grants of up to $5,500; to qualify they must be working full-time, in a formal recovery program from drug or alcohol abuse, or going to school full time.
For whatever reason, the vast majority do not use either program designed to help them through their young adult years.
Although reliable data are missing, anecdotal information and simple math indicate that some youth do make the transition from provincial care to employment and independence. Some return to their biological families or continue to live with their former foster families.
And a network of nonprofit housing and other nongovernmental services offer continued support for vulnerable youth, including former kids in care. Funded in part by government, they include Aunt Leah's Independent Lifeskills Society, Covenant House Vancouver, and Urban Native Youth Association (collectively, these three received nearly $5.5 million in public funding in 2012), as well as others.
Still other 19-year-olds who are developmentally disabled become eligible for support from Community Living B.C.
But like Johnny, many "graduates" from public parenting simply hit the streets.
This unhappy record has not come cheaply. At 2012 rates, maintaining one child in foster care and public school from birth to age 19, exclusive of administration, special education costs, and other expenses, would cost the taxpayer $280,377 -- more than a quarter of a million dollars. Altogether, B.C. spends nearly $500 million per year on child and teen care.
Since 2002, according to an email from MCFD communications, the province has distributed another $8.9 million to about 1,300 young adults formerly in its care to support their post-secondary education, an average of $6,846 each. (MCFD doesn't evaluate whether those kids graduate from their programs or go on to work in a related field.)
The disappointing result from so much public spending is not news to the ministry.
The message I heard from deputy minister Stephen Brown in a phone interview in mid-March was, in effect: we know that many former youth in care flounder when they turn 19; fixing this is a high priority for us; watch for changes in the near future.
An in-depth review of provincial residential care tabled in the legislature in June 2012 exposed its particular failure in caring for aboriginal and Metis youth like Johnny. Many of these kids, the review admitted, emerge from the Crown's parenting, "at an increased risk of homelessness, school incompletion, unemployment, poverty and dependence on income assistance, and persistent and unresolved trauma."
Brown seems determined to do better. Since stepping into his role two years ago, he has been meeting with former youth in care across the province. At first, they helped him understand the problems they'd had with their foster care, independent-living contracts and group homes. More recently, he's been listening to them as the ministry prepares to overhaul its child protection, foster care, and "post-majority services" -- the official term for what the government offers to those who turn 19.
"We're going to struggle with this until we get it right," Brown said.
Supporting a longer 'launch'
"What could the ministry have done better?" Johnny pondered, repeating my question. "Well, not kicked me out on my 19th birthday."
The idea that kids of all stripes take longer to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood in the new century than they may once have done has gained wide acceptance in recent years.
In 2003, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter drew Americans' attention to youth homelessness and foster care in that country, when he wrote the forward to On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age Out of the Foster Care System. That report profiled eight teens and highlighted the strong connection between child protection failures and youth homelessness. It made no specific recommendations but did point out that when polled, Americans expressed the view that independence should come at 23 or 25 -- not 18 (the legal age there).
"Few of us push our children out the door when they reach the age of majority," the authors concluded. "As citizens of states that assumed legal custody of these young people until they were 18, we have at least a moral obligation to help them through their transitions to adulthood."
Subsequently, one of President George W. Bush's last acts in office in 2008 was to sign the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. The highly praised legislation gave states access to federal dollars to extend care to foster kids to age 21 (there are some conditions, but it allows for continued foster family care).
How much would it cost B.C. to do the same? The province currently pays foster families $909.95 a month to care for teens. An extra two years would cost $21,838 per child -- roughly $48 million in all for the 2,200 kids who would turn 19 in that period. Extending the same support to age 24 would cost taxpayers about $60 million more every year.
Last year's residential-care review recommended that young adults be allowed to receive up to $1,100 a month (the current maximum benefit under the independent living contracts available to those under 19, and to eligible "graduates" from care for up to another two years). until they turn 24. If everyone who "aged out" over the additional five year eligibility period took advantage of such support, that would add about $363 million to provincial spending.
The provincial budget tabled in February promised to extend support to former Crown wards after age 19. "This is a hot issue," deputy minister Brown told me. "It's long overdue. The vast majority of young people still need that support." So far, however, these changes have not materialized in practice.
The Liberal government has taken one important step. On March 14, the legislature gave B.C.'s child protection watchdog, the Representative for Children and Youth, the mandate to investigate the province's treatment of 19 to 24-year-olds – just as she does now for children and younger teens.
Money is not enough
As important as extending support after 19 may be, one of Vancouver's most highly-respected youth outreach workers believes that more investment alone won't lead to better outcomes without changing how services are delivered. It's a criticism I've heard several times.
At just 28, Alejandro Zuluaga is already a veteran front-line worker. Most evenings he can be found strolling Commercial Drive, a particular haunt of youth who don't want to go home. His gift is building genuine relationships with vulnerable teens. He chats with them constantly. For some it takes a year before they tell him anything significant. That's okay, he told me over eggs and sausage at a coffee shop near his office at Britannia Community Centre. Given their life circumstances, why would they want to share with anyone?
Zuluaga would never argue that services shouldn't be extended to young adults. Of course they should, he said. But foster kids and vulnerable teens don't suddenly become homeless at 19, he argued. They're set up for it by a system that fails to connect to those it's supposed to serve.
"I was at one meeting about a youth who refused to shower," he said. "There were 17 professionals in the room, including a doctor, one-to-one outreach workers, his foster parent, his social worker, his drug counsellor. The list goes on.
"Okay. If you haven't built a relationship with the kid where you can get him to shower, just adding more services isn't going to do it."
Johnny is one of about two dozen youth I've spoken with over the last couple of months, all kids formerly in government care who hit the streets before or after turning 19. He's slowly pulling his life together, but he's still struggling with things most 21-year-olds take for granted: a place to call home; a family to feed and protect him; mentors to guide him.
Whoever wins the coming election and takes over the unfinished business of reforming the "post-majority" parenting of kids who come into public care, it's clear we could be doing better.