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How BC Can Better Support Youth Aging Out of Foster Care

They face higher levels of homelessness, premature death and incarceration. But a new model aims to help. A Tyee Q&A.

Katie Hyslop 10 Feb 2023TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

Supports for youth leaving the government child welfare system in British Columbia introduced in 2020 and expanded in 2022 created a safety net for young people from care transitioning to independent adulthood.

They included hiring transition workers to help youth plan for leaving care; extending housing support up to age 21; a new $600/month rental supplement; and an expansion of the Agreements with Young Adults, or AYA, program to provide up to $1,250 a month for youth from care in a post-secondary, life skills, cultural or rehabilitation program, to a maximum of eight years before turning 27. AYA recipients are also now allowed to earn additional income.

But these supports are policy changes, not child welfare law amendments, and legislation still ends support for young people at the age of majority: 19 in B.C., New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Nunavut and Yukon; 18 in Alberta, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

“What that means is they're voluntary,” said Jessica Knutson, a child and youth engagement social worker with Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society, and a former youth in care. Youth still have to apply for additional support after leaving government care, and future governments could choose to remove these supports or cut their funding.

The supports are also not what Melanie Doucet considers an “equitable transition” out of the child welfare system. In 2021 Doucet, a child welfare researcher and a former youth in care, outlined eight key pillars of support for an equitable standard transition out of the child welfare system in a report for the Child Welfare League of Canada, in collaboration with the National Council of Youth in Care Advocates.

Doucet's eight pillars include financial supports; educational and professional development; relational supports; housing supports; health and well-being supports; spirituality and culture supports; adulthood development supports; and advocacy and rights supports.

If these standards aren’t implemented, the report states, the ongoing overrepresentation of youth from care in homeless populations, unemployment and underemployment, poor mental health, premature deaths and incarceration will continue. The report’s recommendations do not apply to First Nations child welfare, whose jurisdiction and autonomy over their own members was recently reaffirmed in federal legislation.

Doucet, the Child Welfare League of Canada and the National Council of Youth in Care Advocates teamed up again in 2022 on an evaluation model to help governments, service providers, post-secondaries and youth themselves assess their supports against the equitable standards and take steps to improve.

The result is the development of a model that breaks down the eight pillars of equitable support and provides an accountability tool for organizations serving youth from care. It is available for anyone working with youth from care to use.

The Tyee spoke with Doucet and National Council members Knutson; Teka Desjarlais, a youth from care and member of the Youth Advisory Council for the Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society; and Susan Russell-Csanyi, an independent advocate and youth from care, who broke down how the evaluation model holds governments and youth-supporting organizations accountable for equitably supporting young people from care.

The conversation focused on the new model — but also ranged into territory exploring what equitable means in practice, such as meeting youth where they’re at rather than engaging in practices that feel like “resource gatekeeping,” exploring youth’s hopes and goals for themselves, and making space for mistakes and setbacks for youth from care, to better reflect how youth in the general population are often supported as they transition to adulthood.

The resulting interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: Why was putting out this evaluation model necessary?

Melanie Doucet: The equitable standards were about setting a bar that doesn't exist. We wanted to offer a concrete roadmap for each key stakeholder to evaluate where they're at in meeting the equitable standards, and then move towards being more equitable in the way they're providing supports and services. It's a quality assurance tool.

The equitable standards and the evaluation model is by and for young people in and from care, and I think that's where the difference comes, because oftentimes when there are quality assessments that are being done internally, it's made to serve the system, their own delivery and budgetary models. This is placing the onus on the systems to refocus and become more youth-centered.

Susan Russell-Csanyi: The majority of Canadians are like, ‘I want to support that cohort of youth aging out of care. But how?’ And this model acts as that very concrete tool that they can open and evaluate where they are just as individuals.

What is the current Canadian landscape of supports for youth in care transitioning to adulthood?

Doucet: There has been some movement since the beginning of the pandemic in looking at how the ministries who are responsible for child protection services support young people.

New Brunswick, for example, is looking at implementing a totally new act called the Child and Youth Well-Being Act. And in there they would put provisions that are specifically for youth transitioning to adulthood. They're currently undergoing provincial consultations.

Ontario is also looking at completely revamping transitions to adulthood, a readiness-based framework. Folks who are also involved on the National Council are leading that work. It stops the age-based cutoff that is currently in the legislation and looks at individual readiness of young people. That's one of our key supports and approaches under the emerging adulthood pillars — to eliminate age-based cutoff and create readiness-based approaches, so that every individual youth can transition to adulthood fully once they feel ready and supported to do so.

Alberta had an unfortunate setback where the policy actually regressed because of a change in government and in priority. The age limit actually changed to be earlier than before. But they're still looking at establishing a transition to adulthood program that falls in line with a lot of equitable standards, with the exception of the age-based cutoff.

Russell-Csanyi: In B.C. the [Ministry of Child and Family Development’s] timeline is going to take about four years for full implementation. But they've hired 80 per cent of the transition workers for youth in and from care.

The Federation of [B.C.] Youth In Care Networks is working closely with the ministry on the implementation plan of those extended interim measures. There will be a town hall hosted by the Federation and MCFD [soon] to help answer the community's questions about the rollout of those supports.

Knutson: By spring of 2024 one of the changes that is supposed to be in place [in B.C.], which is exciting for a lot of people, is doubling the amount of time you can be on the Agreements with Young Adults program. Currently you can be on for up to four years, and for many youth they aged out at 19, they go right on the AYA. They're not in post-secondary yet, but doing something else, and four years goes by, and then they have no other options. Maybe it's not until their mid-20s that they're even ready to go to post-secondary, and then those supports aren't available anymore. But again, we'll have to wait years to see how this actually impacts community.

Teka Desjarlais: I don't access any supports. I know that they're out there because I can see my peers who are ready to go back to school, they're able to secure funding quickly. Before you were worried until the first week of school because you don't know if you're approved or not for funding. I know that when my time comes, it's only a matter of reaching out.

But I feel like even those small reaching out steps are still really hard, and I'm working on them. I know that I'll get to a place where I'll be able to share with others how to do that, too.

The majority of kids in care are Indigenous. Of the changes that have been made, how well do they support Indigenous kids in particular?

Knutson: For Indigenous-specific changes to post-majority services, there's not a ton. There was a change within the eligibility of AYA — that's expanded a bit more for culturally-specific programming, working with Elders, for Indigenous youth. And that went along with a reduction in the number of hours that they needed to participate every week. That's definitely a positive change in the right direction of ensuring that Indigenous youth who are aging into community, maybe they're spending time out on the land with Elders, reconnecting to their culture and their territory.

That's a lot of work in itself, and can come with a lot of complexity within identity development, feeling a sense of belonging and connection to a youth's nation or community, especially for the urban Indigenous youth who are not only removed from family and community, but also their territories as well.

We'll also continue to see changes within child welfare as a whole, as more nations start to develop their own child welfare policies that all child welfare workers will have to follow for those specific nations no matter where they are in the country. So as more nations start to do that, and there's some working on that right now, we'll see more changes for children and youth in care that will hopefully lead to more cultural and community pieces being paid attention to within the equitable standards that we've put out.

Doucet: Federally, in terms of jurisdiction for on-reserve First Nations youth, there has been some movement. Indigenous Services Canada implemented post-majority support services reform last year, and they extended the age limit up to age 25, instead of 18 or 19. And they cite the equitable standards as being one of the main influences behind this reform. I don't know how this is being implemented, or how it's trickling to the actual youth. But we took part in discussions with them as they were preparing for this reform.

How many provinces and territories have pledged to use the equitable transitions model?

Doucet: Right now we're in the pilot phase, because this evaluation model is the first of its kind. We wanted to have folks commit to participating in the pilot phase so we can follow up with them, see if it's easy to complete, if there are things that need to be clarified, so we can finalize it and make it accessible online.

So far, we have the New Brunswick Department of Social Development, a pilot transition program in PEI that's offered as part of the ministry that decided to do the evaluation because they felt it would serve them well. We also have a couple of jurisdictions that are currently having internal discussions, but we don't have the final confirmation. Quite a lot of community-based organizations also have jumped on board. From B.C., Aunt Leah's [Place] is doing the evaluation. We're really excited to have them on board.

What's the accountability measurement for those who've agreed to participate?

Doucet: We're going to be following up with them over the course of the year, probably in the spring, early fall and then end of the year. The commitment from their end is to doing every single module. There's a module per pillar that they have to complete and assess where they're at in meeting this standard, and then where they're at in meeting equitably every single key support that's listed under that pillar. That's step one.

We're not expecting folks to publicly share their scoring. But we want them to publicly release an action plan at the end of this year at the latest to show commitment and transparency to the youth in care community in terms of key areas they're going to be focusing on to be able to move towards meeting the equitable standards. We want to see some concrete actions to move towards meeting the equitable standards over time.

What we're looking for is realistic commitments they can fulfil short term, so within a year; medium term within two years; and then longer term within five years. And we've also asked them to establish a steering committee and have young people sit on this committee so they can develop this action plan together to make sure that it actually fits with what the young people are saying that they need and want.

You have mentioned the importance of having youth-centred programs, policies and legislation versus system centred. What does that mean to you as current and former youth from care?

Desjarlais: It's asking what me as the youth wants or needs, and having no intermediate person there to mitigate. I think it's easier for the system to be human and ask what you need than to say, “I've identified that this is what you need.” That's how I see it.

Knutson: An important piece of that is for social workers, people in government, stepping away from that position of seeing yourself as the expert or who knows what's best, and being in relationship with youth in and from care. Of listening to what the youth want, what they need, how things work best for them and working together in relationship.

Teka and I will have a conversation like, "Let's do this thing. We can't do it exactly this way. But let's work together and see how we can make this work out best within the resources that we have in our hands." Who knows best are the youth, because they're living it, have lived it.

Also, as a social worker lower case loads are needed so we can do the good work we want to be doing and be in relationships with children and youth. There shouldn't be 25 people on a caseload. Everyone knows that it's not working. So how can we change that so it can work better and we could spend more time with the children and youth who we take care of and are supposed to be in relationship with?

Russell-Csanyi: Recognizing that systems have this method of communication that isn't youth friendly: the language, the tone, the timeliness, everything. And when a youth is looking for housing or funding or community supports, that being truly youth-centred means communicating to youth in the youth's language. And being not just trauma-informed, because that is now the buzzword people use when they come to any table with marginalized folks, but truly holding a space that is open and welcoming and knows where the youth is coming to them from, a non-judgmental space. The world that Katherine McParland had envisioned for youth care to work.

When it's a systems approach, it seems like resource gatekeeping. Like the person who is delivering the resources feels personally responsible, they have some kind of financial attachment over these resources that they're going to give or plan hopefully to give a youth. And that the lens [through] which a lot of the systems are delivering our supports is colonial and racist.

Doucet: Oftentimes that's why youth in care aren't a priority in provincial budgets because it's treated as an expenditure, instead of an investment ahead of time. And there's tons of cost benefit analysis that have been done, there was even one in B.C. where they showed return on investment if you continued supporting young people past the age of majority. Young people need to be treated as worthy of that investment, and not as another expense the government doesn't want to contribute towards.

The system sets youth up with their intervention plans and their independent living plans, for things to be linear. And if you don't follow that linear trajectory, you're a failure. That's not developmentally appropriate. You have to allow room for trial and error, to fall and pick yourself back up and to have that support system in place to help you do that, because that's how young people in the general population experience the transition to adulthood.

The way to approach working with young people is about power sharing, leaving some room for autonomy, for coming up with your own goals, making your own decisions.

Also focusing on their dreams and their strengths, because that doesn't tend to be part of the conversation. It certainly wasn't part of my experience growing up in care. “What are you good at? Let's celebrate that, let's focus on that, let's think about the opportunities that present themselves because of that” — these were all things I had to explore on my own. That should not be the case for any young person, this should be part of your experience, just like young people who aren't in the system.  [Tyee]

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