Dylan Cohen is “pretty sure” he asked to go into foster care when he was 14, but he’s not positive.
“Part of coming into care meant that my childhood is mostly a blur, and a lot of it’s very, very foggy,” said Cohen.
It’s not because he hasn’t looked back on the experience. Now 23, Cohen has come a long way, both literally and metaphorically, since he and his twin sister left their mother’s Winnipeg home on a voluntary care agreement to live with their first foster family out in the suburbs.
Cohen’s experience in the system fuels his activism. He’s the founder of 25not21, a grassroots advocacy group composed of youth in and from care like him who have called on the Manitoba government to extend supports to youth in care up to age 25.
He’s continued speaking out for more resources for youth in care since moving to B.C. in 2017. Last fall he helped organize The Discourse’s workshops on reporting on the province’s child welfare system, which The Tyee participated in. Cohen also organized the Youth Policy rally on the legislature lawn to draw more MLA and public attention to child welfare in B.C. as part of his youth organizer position with First Call: BC Child Welfare Advocacy Coalition.
The Tyee spoke to Cohen about his own experience in care, what he wished governments had done differently, and what steps we should take to ensure no more kids end up in care because their families are poor.
The Tyee: It was your decision to go into care — is that right?
Dylan Cohen: Yeah that’s a fair way of characterizing it. Kids can’t just say “I want to be in care” and then the social worker says “OK.” But I refused to go home, and the protection concerns that were in my home were relevant enough that, based on my interest in not going home, those protection concerns and my mother’s interests in having a voluntary care agreement, I was placed in care.
Is there anything that Manitoba child services could have done earlier in your life that would have prevented that from happening?
Yeah. My experience before care was a lot of poverty. I know that if I had better resources, and my mother was more supported, my journey through childhood would have looked a lot different. The reality is that most people come into care because of poverty and neglect. And neglect is just another word for not having enough needs being met, or not having the resources to meet somebody’s needs. And if my mother’s intergenerational trauma had been dealt with in the ’60s and ’70s when she was a tiny child, she would have been better able to parent. And if she had been more able to parent she maybe wouldn’t have had a child at 16 and wouldn’t have left high school without finishing and ended up in abusive relationships.
Did she have you when she was 16?
No, my eldest sister. My eldest sister had her first child when she was 16, as well, and my mother’s mother had her first child when she was a teenager.
In care, did you stay with family or with strangers?
Strangers. I didn’t have any family supports while I was in care. I had an uncle who wasn’t interested in fostering me, but was nice in other ways. A lot of people talk about kinship care or other forms of extended family support. For me, and for a lot of other youth in care, that doesn’t exist. My mom was part of the Sixties Scoop and was placed into a white family where she experienced a lot of abuse. And when she became an adult, she was ready to leave that family completely behind, which meant when she had kids they had a lot less familial support.
Were you placed with Indigenous people or white people?
My case file didn’t indicate that I was Indigenous. Actually, just a few months ago I spoke to a supervisor who held my case for two years, who asked me if I was suggesting that I was Indigenous during our call when I brought up cultural competency. And I think it illustrates that the system doesn’t even look for Indigenous ancestry for some kids, let alone putting them in a home that fits their traditional heritage or their teachings.
In B.C. they're supposed to look for Indigenous placements for Indigenous children — they don't always do it but they’re supposed to. In Manitoba were they supposed to as well?
They were supposed to. And Manitoba is an interesting case because there was a fire in a warehouse in the ’70s, and a lot of child and family records burned. So my family’s files were included in that, and as a result any ancestry that my mother had traced in government records was gone. So while my mom identifies as Jewish, which doesn’t exclude Indigenous ancestry, the Jewish agency that we were with never questioned the racial identity because their idea of culturally appropriate was another Jewish home.
So in an effort toward cultural competency, I was, I guess, integrated with some elements of the Jewish community. But there aren’t many Jewish foster homes so that was never my experience, and my Indigenous ancestry was something that was rejected by the foster parents that I was living with.
By rejected do you mean they didn’t believe you were Indigenous? Or they just didn’t want to talk about it?
When I looked into my ancestry and when I was showing more interest, they told me to stop trying to game the system. They held a lot of racist perspectives about Indigenous people. That was the environment that I would come into my identity in.
Did people just assume you were white?
I think people always said that I had Native blood. It’s funny, cause I look at camp pictures from the Jewish summer camp that I went to and it’s like 10 white Jewish kids from the nicer part of the city and then this brown kid that’s dressed in poor clothing and kinda dirty. And you know the experience for me as a racialized person wasn’t present, wasn’t clear, but I can recognize some of the relationships I had [with] that as a factor.
And then, like a lot of kids, I was placed into a home outside of my community in a rural area where the people in the school around me, where I spend most of my time, didn’t look like me and didn’t think like me. They were white Christian kids from the country. And that’s really common: a lot of youth will come into care and live with religious families in the suburbs or rural communities because those are the ones that have the time and the space to foster. But when we hear Indigenous communities say we really need culturally appropriate homes, that’s the kind of ideas that come to mind — that youth are being placed with well-hearted and well-intentioned people that aren’t fits.
Do you have any ideas for how we could support more Indigenous people to become foster parents?
Big question. It’s just so multifaceted, there’s 500 different answers to that. You could pay foster parents more. But that also increases the likelihood of people applying just for money. You can make sure that there’s better housing on reserves so that people have space to foster if they’re interested in it. You can ensure that more people have education on reserve and in Indigenous communities because then they’ll have the time and resources to start fostering.
One of the themes that keeps coming up for me is the importance of extended family placements and finding opportunities for a young person to stay with the people that they know. And a lot of times a kid will be taken into care because there’s not enough resources in the house that they live in. And they’ll be placed in a much more expensive placement somewhere else in the province. So if we find them suitable housing that’s not as far, or more familial, and pay the person to be able to provide that support, then I think we’ll see a lot better outcomes.
Are there other things Manitoba child services could have done differently to support you?
I asked really clearly to leave the foster home that I was in and they said no. And my sister asked that, too. And they said no. And we both left that home with a lot of trauma at different times in our lives. And I know that the social workers that made those decisions were acting with our best interests in mind, and the reality was that there was no perfect way to meet our needs with the resources they had. So the best-case scenario for them was some trauma for us. Our best-case scenario was some trauma when we left care.
If I had a constant social worker from zero to 20 that supported me throughout every major step of my life and was able to intervene when my mom needed support and when I needed support, I would be in a better spot. I know that if my choice of foster homes was broader and I was able to live somewhere culturally appropriate, then I’d be in a better spot. I know if I had more support as I transitioned out of care I’d be in a better spot. But we’re looking at a really systems-level change in the amount of resources that are available in order to see that.
Were you with the same foster family the whole time you were in care?
No, I left when I was 15 or 16, and then I spent some time homeless. And then I lived in a couple more placements.
When you say that you left at different times, your sister was still there?
Yeah, my sister ended up staying in the foster home that was quite an abusive place. It really impacted her. I know that they looked great on paper. They seemed [like] really nice people, but that’s not always what kids need. They need more than just what looks good on paper, they need to be heard, and acknowledged and respected.
In your advocacy work you talk a lot about supports for kids aging out of care. How has the system changed since you aged out in Manitoba?
There’s been a culture shift in the number of youth that are out of care getting support after [they reach the] age of majority. And even in the few years before I left care, there was a transition where it went from maybe 25 per cent of youth from care getting post-majority support to something like 70 or 80 or 90 per cent.
That’s indicative of a real shift in the mentality of what it means to age out, that socially we’re saying this is a collective responsibility to make sure supports are available. And I’m applauding the most recent Manitoba decision to extend the tuition supports for youth aging out of care indefinitely. So there’s no age cap on the new program available for youth for post-secondary tuition. That’s a really great policy that we need to follow in the footsteps of in B.C.
While we’re working on a new child welfare model, what can be done to help the kids and families who are in the system right now?
If we’re trying to make the system better for kids who are in care now, we need to reduce the workload for everyone else by reducing the number of kids that are in it. We need to think upstream in order to fix child welfare and make sure that kids aren’t coming into care because of neglect. Abuse is going to happen for a long time. And I’m not expecting that we’re going to find some social policy that will stop kids from being taken into care because of the most outlandish and horrendous abuse stories. Those are still going to happen right now. But if we make sure that there aren’t as many kids coming into care, we can be certain that social workers will have more time and energy and won’t burn out as quickly with the youth that they are supporting, and that foster parents won’t be overloaded by the number of kids that need support. And the levels of bureaucracy will have enough resources to actually meet the current demand.
What are your ideas for a good Indigenous family-centred, community-centred system?
There are many different communities in B.C. and all of them had child welfare systems before colonization. They had some way of dealing with kids who needed support and ensuring community was present in child rearing. I don’t want to paint a picture of the one Indigenous child welfare solution because it doesn’t exist. What would be a massive improvement would be each community deciding what their own child welfare system should and could look like, and having the financial resources to implement that.
What do you think the role of the state would be in that scenario?
I think that when we look at what the government is doing well now, it’s providing resources for communities to lead themselves out of poverty and into a more just society. And I’m hopeful that a federal or provincial or state response means adequately financing the communities to meet the needs of kids who are in reserve, just like we do for white kids.
What gives you hope?
I've seen a real cultural shift in the ways that youth from care are being perceived by society, and a sense of upstream thinking that is coming from the public on prevention supports to make sure kids don’t come into care in the first place. And ideally, we’ll have a system that has no one coming into care and nobody aging out, and my job is meaningless. And I do see us taking steps towards fixing the system. But it’s slow and I’m thankful that we haven’t had any tragedies in the last six months that I know about. So I’m optimistic and I'm hopeful.
Honestly, I work in this community and I see so many youth from care that are killing it, and I know that that’s because of the advocacy and the collective strength in us as a community. And it gives me optimism and hope that we will be triumphant in our battle to make this system great.
Coming Monday: In part 12, we look at the federal government’s six-point plan to fix the system — and concerns that it doesn’t go far enough.