Reports on British Columbia’s foster care system typically repeat the same recommendations — teach young people life skills, extend supports beyond their 19th birthday, keep them connected to their cultures. You rarely — or never — see recommendations to ensure they can find housing that allows pets or make their own decisions on things that affect their lives. Or that the entire approach to preparing a young person for independence should be transformed to focus on helping them build a community of family and friends to support them after they age out of care at 19. Perhaps because the recommendations don’t usually come from young people who have been in care. Those recommendations were all included in Relationships Matter for Youth “Aging Out” of Care, a report from Melanie Doucet, a McGill University social work PhD student, and eight youth from care in B.C. The report, released by the Representative for Children and Youth’s website on Tuesday, focuses on the importance of relationships in the lives of young people in and from care. From their connections with culture and community, to their relationships from family, friends, mentors and social workers. Doucet says the collaboration with youth led to the sometimes surprising recommendations for change. “Pets came out as one of the most important relationships for youth who aged out of care,” said Doucet, who aged out of New Brunswick’s foster system two decades ago. “I’ve had a cat ever since I aged out of care, “she said. “And even me, as a former youth-in-care, I didn’t think about that.” The report stems from a 12-week photovoice project that Doucet and the youth, then ages 19 to 29, went through in fall 2017. The project, called Relationships Matter, provided the young people with digital cameras and instruction on photography, and then asked them to document the importance of relationships in their lives and any barriers they faced creating and maintaining them. They then met to review and critique the photos and discuss the themes that emerged — the basis of photovoice, a qualitative research method using photos and conversation. The young people explored their ideas for changes to community, policies and interventions for youth in care as they related to creating and maintaining relationships. That portion of the project culminated with a free gallery showing in Vancouver, where youths’ photos were captioned with their recommendations for improving foster care. The 34 recommendations outlined in the report do include oft-heard calls for raising the age to leave foster care to 25 from the current 19, ensuring young people have access to adequate and affordable housing to prevent their slide into homelessness and also providing life skills training. They bear repeating because the changes have yet to be made, said Doucet. “The child welfare system is very much aware of the issues, but I think we need to make the general public aware of the issues because that’s where the political pressure comes from to make changes.” The recommendations go beyond the Ministry of Children and Family Development, including calls for action for BC Housing, landlords, municipal and provincial governments, educators and health professionals. For Harrison Pratt, one of the youth co-researchers, the recommendations that more be done to help youths maintain connections and relationships with culture were critical. “Culture saves lives,” said Pratt, who was 26 when he started working with Relationships Matter last year. Now 27, he said culture helps you find and build your own sense of yourself, as well as connect to others. “It’s actually quite dehumanizing to not have access to [your own] culture. What most youth are left with is a very reduced reality, a very bare life. Why would life be worth living if you have nothing left to live for?” Co-researcher Martha Dzhenganin, now 20, related the most to the recommendation for youth-centred decision-making. “When we were doing this project, we were agreeing that we didn’t feel like we had any input into what was going on in our lives,” they said, referring to participants’ time in care. “Really being listened to is what we’re asking in that one.” Both Dzhenganin and Pratt said it’s also important to act on recommendations like helping youth maintain connections with family, both biological and chosen; expanding the availability of post-aging out tuition waivers and financial support programs like the Agreement with Young Adults to all youth from care at any age; implementing youth-centred decision making; and changing the age for leaving foster care to 25. Doucet plans to credit her eight co-researchers as collaborators when she writes her dissertation. And individually and together they plan to continue making presentations on their findings to government, media and any other interested stakeholders. “It’s not just my project, it’s their project, it’s our project,” Doucet said. Youth from care should be recognized as experts on foster care, she added. “It’s so important to adopt those kinds of approaches when you’re researching vulnerable populations. Because it takes away power when you do traditional scientific approaches, and this is a way to give back the power and to empower them.” The experience sparked a desire to continue with youth-in-care advocacy for both Pratt and Dzhenganin. Pratt hopes to carry on as a mentor and Dzhenganin is currently working as a researcher on youth health. “It connected me to a lot more youth [from foster care] and I think that it’s very empowering having worked on this,” said Dzhenganin. “It’s very validating and confirming. And it feels good.” This story was updated on Dec. 14, 2018 at 12:15 p.m. to clarify the source of the aging out report.