Canada’s Foster Youth ‘Age Out’ Of Care Into Uncertainty Of Coronavirus Pandemic

“It's cruel to throw kids, not just off the edge of a cliff, but into a maelstrom.”

Angelina* went into care at age seven, and has been in and out of foster and group homes for the last 11 years. In October, after she turned 18, she “aged out” — meaning it was time for her to leave the child welfare system and navigate the path to adulthood, mostly on her own.

Now living alone in Toronto in the midst of a pandemic, school cancelled for the foreseeable future, Angelina, who asked not to use her real name in this story, is having a hard time managing her loneliness, anxiety and depression. “It’s extremely hard right now,” she told HuffPost Canada. “No one has checked in with me. It’s hard to get my cheques because I have to pick them up in person. I don’t even really know what I’m supposed to be doing.”

There are approximately 63,000 children in Canada living in foster or group homes or permanent care arrangements with extended family, according to the Children’s Aid Foundation. And when young people age out of the child welfare system, they face a steep, uphill battle. Even in the best of times, aging out of care is incredibly fraught.

Former youth in care, activist and founder of the grassroots advocacy organization Child Welfare PAC, Jane Kovarikova explained that youth typically have to move from foster care or a group home to independent living at age 18.

“Some jurisdictions in Canada continue to provide a small living allowance, academic, or other types of services until a later age cut off,” she says. But support varies from province to province: “In Ontario, youth receive an allowance of around $850/month until age 21. However, in Alberta the extended supports were recently reduced from age 24 to age 22, without grandfathering the policy, which left many youths’ future plans derailed.”

On their own, pandemic or not

For all Canadians, many aspects of life changed abruptly as pandemic protocols and measures came into effect earlier this month. But, with the exception of Ontario, which on Thursday responded to an outcry from child welfare advocates, by announcing a moratorium on aging out in response to the COVID-19 crisis, it has largely been business as usual for the child welfare system in other provinces.

The new pandemic protocol will be that Ontario youth about to turn 18 and still in extended society care will continue to receive services, which might mean remaining in their foster home or group home, in customary care, or under the guardianship of extended family.

Youth about to turn 21 (under normal circumstances the cut-off age for continued care support) will also not have to face an end to existing services, until the outbreak is over.

Ontario’s recent decision, however, neglects to support the young people who aged out of care in the weeks and months leading up to the pandemic.

“They’re not necessarily used to being alone like this in a scary situation or equipped to really handle the questions that might be coming up.”

Cheyanne Ratnam, child advocate and founding member of Ontario Children’s Advocacy Coalition, is deeply concerned for young people about to transition or recently transitioned from the child welfare system. “They’re not necessarily used to being alone like this in a scary situation or equipped to really handle the questions that might be coming up,” she said.

Those questions might include what to do if they won’t be able to pay rent or access medications, or if they face food insecurity. “There’s going to be a huge impact on mental health,” said Ratnam.

Adult outcomes are already fairly grim for the children who have been raised in foster care. In addition to being less likely to complete high school and attend postsecondary institutions, former foster kids are more likely to be homeless, jobless and living in poverty.

An extra layer of distress

And so, the Covid-19 catastrophe is simply one additional layer atop an existing crisis. For kids who have recently left extended society care, pandemic concerns are exacerbated by the particularities of their situation — dependence on small government stipends, lack of strong family ties or robust social support networks, and the often crushing sense of isolation that comes from a lifetime of being shuttled in and out of temporary homes.

Add to all these factors: many universities are emptying their dorms as the remainder of the academic year moves online, but youth who grew up in the child welfare system may not have a family home to return to, and, as a result, former youth in care may be facing housing insecurity.

Irwin Elman, Ontario’s former Child and Youth Advocate, said many of the present systems available to kids who age out are inadequate or inaccessible — a situation exacerbated in a time of crisis.

“The way the system works, they moved from home to home to home,” he said. “They don’t have family connections and oftentimes don’t have community connections. In many cases, they don’t have someone to call. It’s cruel to throw kids not just off the edge of a cliff, but into a maelstrom.”

Youth advocates ask governments to step up

Thus, child welfare advocates across the country are sounding the alarm and trying to fill the gaps. There are reports of smaller, grassroots efforts—for example, Atikokan Native Friendship Centre in northwestern Ontario has been delivering food boxes and hot food, and is also trying to find transitional housing, for vulnerable youth. “These kids don’t have money to stockpile food, and many don’t even have cell phones,” said executive director Sarah Laurich.

But, the child welfare system is a patchwork, and there is no comprehensive nationwide plan in place. On Monday, a joint statement was issued by youth in care networks from across the country, the Child Welfare League of Canada, A Way Home Canada and the Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada, which called for an immediate and indefinite suspension of legislated aged cut-offs, accessible mental health services, a nationwide moratorium on evictions, and additional supports for those who recently transitioned out of care.

“I only have $50 a week for food. All of the help that I had before is practically gone.”

More emergency call lines needed

While the business community is expected to receive government bailouts, Valerie McMurtry, President & CEO of Children’s Aid Foundation, said former kids in care are unlikely to meet the requirements for the additional federal benefits that have been announced so far.

“Many of them are only working on a casual labour basis, or they work for themselves or they rely on income from volunteer honorarium-type gigs,” she said. “They won’t qualify for the expanded employment insurance program.”

Ratnam wants transitional benefits for all Canadian youth who have aged out of care to be extended beyond the cutoff age, for the duration of the pandemic. She’d also like to see an increase in resources, such as emergency call lines—particularly important, she said, for those who struggle with mental health, who do not have permanent-resident status, or who’re facing housing insecurity at a time when shelters are already overwhelmed.

In response to COVID-19, Kids Help Phone ―which typically serves young people up to age 20 ― recently extended their text and phone support to all young people who have aged out of care, regardless of their age. Ratnam would also like to see government agencies step up and provide more targeted mental health resources for former youth in care.

So far, there are no indications that other provinces and territories will heed the calls of child and youth advocates. And there are concerns that, with a crisis affecting virtually every aspect of everyday life, young people from the child welfare system will not be a top priority for decision makers.

Angelina wants to resume focusing on a future that she hopes will improve both her own circumstances and those of other kids facing similar life challenges to those she grew up with.

“When school comes back, I want to finish because I only have six more credits,” she said. “And then I want to study policing or to be a paramedic, but maybe I’ll work in group homes.”

For now, she is waiting for the pandemic to pass. “It’s extremely hard right now,” Angelina said. “I only have $50 a week for food. All of the help that I had before is practically gone.”

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