05/14/2012 08:21 EDT | Updated 07/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Fostered youth want smoother shift to independence

Young people raised in foster care say Ontario needs to extend benefits for them until age 25, four more years than they are currently eligible for.

There should also be a national day recognizing children and youth in state care, and better monitoring of how they're doing.

The recommendations are among six suggestions for immediate action in a report released today by a team of youth who live or have lived under state care.

The team held hearings at Queen's Park in November to try to improve the situation of young people who live in foster care or group homes, but then suddenly get cut off from financial and social supports when reach age 18 or 21.

Drawing on the experiences of 200 participants in the hearings, the report says the transition out of care can be drastic. Youth are suddenly left without a monthly allowance for rent and food, without a case worker to call for help and advice, without dental and medical coverage, and without their foster family.

"Once I turn 21, because I am a Crown ward, I lose my support system," said Shanna Allen, one of the organizers of the Youth Leaving Care hearings.

"That includes my [children's support] worker — so being able to call her with any type of question, my financial support, so the money that I've been using towards school and towards rent and towards paying my car insurance, paying my groceries — I lose that. And lose out on services such as counselling, any type of dental or health coverage.

"So I really feel like that's kind of a burden to move forward. I still have two more years left of school."

Allen went into care when she was eight, when her single mother was mentally ill. After her mom committed suicide, Allen became a permanent ward of the state and lived in several homes.

"There was a parental figure, but it's not the same. It almost feels like you're living with strangers because the unconditional love is not there."

Feel stigmatized

The Youth Leaving Care report's main goal is to overhaul the provincial foster care system. Young people under state care graduate from high school at about half the rate of the general population, the reports says, and make up a vast disproportion of homeless youth.

People who contributed their experiences to the report said they sometimes felt stigmatized or criminalized by child-welfare workers and foster families, racially discriminated against or belittled.

Others said their case workers were tremendously supportive and helped them every day.

"Having someone to go to when family isn't an option for us is beyond words," says a 20-year-old woman named Sonja who's quoted in the document. "The financial and emotional support given to me in care is what keeps me going."

The provincial advocate for children and youth, Irwin Elman, said these are youth who have remained "largely invisible" in the province for too long.

"The fundamental issues about isolation, about feeling vulnerable, about feeling a lack of control over their lives – is not something new," Elman said.

"It's a generational thing that's been going on and on and on, and this is a very timely way to ensure their voices were heard. And it's actually an effective way to create change, because it's created so much support for these children."

Elman himself recommended earlier this year that the cutoff age for provincial support be raised to 21 from 25.

Ontario has 8,300 children and youth permanently in foster care or group homes, and another 8,500 under the temporary care of a children's aid society.

An estimated one million Canadians have been cared for by the state at some point in their lives.