04/28/2014 01:12 EDT | Updated 06/28/2014 05:59 EDT

B.C. children's watchdog calls for extra help for foster kids past age 19

VANCOUVER - Brittany Palmer finished high school living on her own in an apartment paid for by the British Columbia Ministry for Children and Families and worked part-time to pay for anything over and above the $200 a month the ministry provided for food.

That tab included the cost of her high school graduation cap and gown.

She was one of the more than 8,000 children in government care in the province at any given time but despite the tumult of her home life, Palmer was studious. She didn't do drugs or skip school.

At 18, she was enrolled in university. She had a plan. She was determined. Then she "aged out" of the provincial foster care system.

"I knew they were going to cut me off and I thought I was prepared. I wasn't," said Palmer, now 21.

A couple weeks into her second semester of university, her 19th birthday on the horizon, the reality hit home. She couldn't get a student loan from the bank and she had no savings.

"I realized that I didn't have any money for rent and I was going to get cut off in February. I ended up dropping out of university so I could use that money to pay for rent."

Palmer's journey to a better life — almost — ended.

It's a story all to common for young people in government care, said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who released a report Monday on the challenge facing young adults like Palmer.

On average, about 700 children in government care "age out" every year in B.C., she said. More than half have only income assistance awaiting them.

"Young people in any home in British Columbia are not shown to the door at 19 and told 'Good luck, you're on your own,'" Turpel-Lafond said.

Youth in care enter adulthood in deep poverty, unable to afford even a toaster or other basic supplies for a first-time home.

The rest have support available but the red tape can be prohibitive, Turpel-Lafond said.

Her report recommends the province establish a Youth Secretariat to co-ordinate services from different ministries and help children in care transition to adulthood.

It recommends the Education Ministry have education plans in place beginning in Grade 6. Until recently, the province didn't even track children in care in school.

Only about 20 per cent graduate from high school, compared to 80 per cent of the overall population, Turpel-Lafond told social workers and educators gathered in Vancouver for a conference on the issue Monday.

The provincial children's representative also recommended the ministry extend foster care up to age 25 for young people in post-secondary studies or trades apprenticeships, on a case-by-case basis, as well as have the standing committee on children and youth hold a series of public hearings on the issue.

Children's Minister Stephanie Cadieux said government does not have any plans to extend services to youth past age 19.

"Our current service plan and the province's three-year budget plan don't contemplate a mandate expansion or the establishment of new offices at this time," she told reporters.

Cadieux agreed that the outcomes for young adults who leave care are not good and said government is trying to emphasize the adoption of older youth so they have the support they need for future success.

"It is most important that we actually focus energies on trying to achieve better outcomes for these kids much earlier and those outcomes would be adoption into permanent family situations," she said.

"The reality is that much of the supports and services that we offer in British Columbia meet or exceed what is offered in other provinces."

Turpel-Lafond disagreed.

Though the province has made improvements there are still gaps, she said.

"Young people are aging out of care without the support and what are they aging into?" she asked. "The mental health system and the criminal justice system, for some, and the income-assistance system. That's not good. We know we can save money by doing it differently."

There are still success stories, however.

Thanks to a very determined social worker, Palmer qualified for a Children's Ministry program that provides $300 a month for rent. Her school, Vancouver Island University, is one of two that began offering this January a tuition waiver for youth from government care.

She works two jobs in the summer and part-time during the semester to make ends meet. And she just finished her second year of university, en route to a major in criminology.

"I always wanted to go to university," she said.


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