The new B.C. budget includes $35 million over three years to extend supports for youth transitioning out of the child welfare system, something advocates have demanded for years.
“I think it’s an excellent development,” said Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth, adding the development gave her “tingles” given the work her office and youth from care, including the late Katherine McParland, have done to advocate for young people leaving government care.
The $35 million won’t be enough to fully support all youth from care, she added. But it’s a start.
“I have been waiting for a few years now to see a shift in thinking about young people who’ve had in-care experiences,” Charlesworth said.
But much of the information about how these supports will roll out has yet to be determined.
About 1,000 young people transition out of care every year in B.C. on their 19th birthdays, a process also known as “aging out.”
The budget funding will provide bridging supports for these youths up to the age of 27.
This funding forms part of the $633 million budgeted for addressing and preventing homelessness among B.C. residents. The focus on youth from care is meant to address their overrepresentation among people experiencing homelessness.
The funding makes permanent a temporary change the ministry made in 2020. Young people in government care who turned 19 — the age at which government funding for their child welfare placement, including foster and group homes, is cut off — were granted a funding extension so they wouldn’t have to move out during a pandemic.
A $600 rental supplement is also coming for youth from care, as are changes to broaden the reach of a pre-existing program, known as Agreements with Young Adults, which assists a limited number of youth from care towards independence.
In an emailed statement to The Tyee, Lorena Bishop, executive director of the Federation of BC Youth in Care Networks, celebrated the $35 million and congratulated young people from care who spent years advocating for these changes.
“This investment is an important step towards altering the trajectory of youth leaving government care, which we know can lead to homelessness,” Bishop wrote.
“We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with government to ensure youth in and from care have the supports and resources they need so they can share their incredible gifts, strengths and talents with the world.”
‘We don’t want any barriers’
The ministry will use some of the new funds to add transition workers and other supports to help young people transition to independence, Children and Family Development Minister Mitzi Dean told The Tyee.
Much like any young person leaving the family home to live, work or study on their own, youth from care often need assistance from their government “family” for a few years. A full transition out of care will be achieved either when they can support themselves or when they turn 27, whichever happens first.
Dean said that the ministry is working with BC Housing to ensure young people from care are prioritized for housing projects where appropriate.
The rental supplement announced in the Budget 2022 press release will eventually be for all young people leaving care, Dean said.
The supplement will first be made available in the 2022–23 fiscal year for youth from care who are enrolled in the Agreements with Young Adults program, which provides up to $1,250 per month to cover living expenses for young people from care enrolled in education, life skills, rehabilitation or cultural programs. This program is open to young people aged 19 to 26 who were still in care on their 19th birthdays. Youth are required to apply for the program and can access it for a maximum of 48 months.
“At the moment we only have the structure of the AYA program, so that’s how we’re able to deliver it,” Dean said. “We only have a mandate for young people up to the age of 19, apart from the AYA program.”
“We need to take time to change the system so that the ministry is able to be providing services and programming to young people up to the age of 27.”
Other Budget 2022 changes to the Agreements with Young Adults program help increase supports to participants 19 to 26.
By the 2023-24 fiscal year, the Agreements with Young Adults program will allow young people to earn additional income on top of the monthly amount, up to $1,250, provided for their living expenses, without a cap on how much they can earn. Agreements with Young Adults is currently an income-tested support. So any earned income a young person has will impact how much monthly funding they receive.
The program will also provide access to counselling, medical benefits and more life-skills training.
A recent pandemic change to the program makes youth accessing cultural programs eligible for program benefits, which is significant as two-thirds of the children and youth in care in B.C. today are Indigenous.
“There very clearly have been barriers there, and we don’t want any barriers,” said Dean. “We want to support youth in whatever pathway that’s going to be successful for them moving to independence.”
The ministry’s Service Plan estimates that 31.3 per cent of youth who are transitioning out of care in 2021-22 will access the Agreement with Young Adults program within a year.
The ministry aims to increase Agreements with Young Adults access to 37.3 per cent of youth leaving care by 2024-25. Dean hopes the ministry mandate change to serve youth up to age 27 will be in place by then and the program will be available to all youth leaving care.
Adrienne Montani, executive director for First Call Child and Youth Advocacy Society, which runs the Fostering Change campaign with youth from care advocating for supported transition, is concerned that until that happens, the eligibility barriers will mean too few youth leaving care will get the rental supplement being attached to the Agreements with Young Adults program given the eligibility barriers.
“Because the problem to be solved is, ‘Don’t ever push anybody out of the care system without housing arranged, and the adequate financial support to pay the rent,’” she said.
Dean said the ministry is planning consultation with youth in and from care in the coming years to hammer out the details.
“We want to make sure that we do what the intention is, which is to help these young people and support them in a way that they’re telling us is how they want to be supported and help them be successful,” she said.
Only young people who were in care until their 19th birthdays are currently eligible for the AYA program. This leaves out youth, like Anita Shen, who left the care system voluntarily before their 19th birthday.
“It’s a small percentage of youth that actually access the AYA, so there’s still going to be people who fall through the cracks with this,” said Shen, who is now 29 and volunteers with Fostering Change.
Shen struggled to support themself through post-secondary education. Despite the years they spent in government care, leaving the system at age 17 meant they were ineligible for the Agreements with Young Adults funding that is available for youth who transition out at 19.*
Shen would like to see universal AYA access for all youth with care experience, beyond age 27 if necessary.
Adding youth transition navigators
The $35 million will also cover the hiring and training of about 80 new youth transition navigators to assist up to 8,830 young people as they transition into adulthood, with support starting at 14.
Shen says it’s important for young people without family to have a transition worker help prepare them for independence.
“Many of us don’t have reliable role models to look up to, stable adults in our lives,” they said, adding for many youth in and from care, government is their only family.
However young people transitioning out of care want peer navigators, not more social workers, they added.
“We’re sick and tired of social workers and people who don’t have experience of the care system saying, ‘This is what you need to do,’” Shen said.
Representative Charlesworth agreed, adding it is important young people’s relationships with navigators are more than “transactional,” as many have reported their relationships with ministry social workers are.
“It’s really important that they be relational, that they get to know the young people, that they walk alongside,” she said.
It would also be good to know if navigators will be direct ministry employees or subcontracted community agency workers, Montani said, adding for many young people there is a stigma attached to the ministry.
Dean said these decisions won’t be made before the ministry talks to young people and other stakeholders.
“We’ve been hearing from young people for a long time that we needed to change the system, and this is a cross-government system of support that’s going to help them thrive," Dean said.
“Young people tell us, ‘We want to thrive not just survive,’ and that’s what our intention is.”
* Story updated on March 4 at 5:58 p.m. to correct details about post-secondary funding for youth transitioning out of care. This article previously stated incorrectly that Anita Shen was not eligible for the tuition waiver.