Leah_head_webLeah Myers
The Navigator

The Vancouver Sun is in the midst of publishing a six-part story series titled “From care to where? Aging out of the foster system.” The story examines BC’s policy of abruptly ending care for foster children on their 19th birthdays. The series thus far is a wonderfully informative research piece that laces the personal journeys of kids in goverment care with the startling hard facts and stats of poor graduation percentages and high social assistance rates amongst former foster care children. The stats are startling, but make sense at the same time.

For example, according to the article, BC’s overall high school graduation rate is better than 80 per cent, however foster children are “stark exceptions” and only 32 per cent have graduated high school by their 19th birthdays. High school is hard enough as it is, so I imagine it’s even tougher amidst transitions from different foster homes and then needing to become a fully independent adult in your grade 12 year.

In the beginning of Part One, the Sun reporter, Tracy Sherlock, explains the birthday present care children receive when their time runs out: “For many, it means losing the $1,000 a month provided by the ministry to pay their rent and support themselves. In both scenarios, the youths also abruptly lose contact with any government social workers or transition workers who give advice, free food vouchers, and bus tickets until age 19.”

When I was 19, I had a boyfriend who was living in a group home when he “aged out.” Having a close relationship with a care child, and feeling the turbulence of his struggles from the sidelines was both heartbreaking yet also an invaluable insight into how the system operates. I remember him talking about a staff member, who he was especially close with, giving him his phone number in a very under-the-table sort of way. And though he was sent off with other support-line contacts, he was told not to reach out to any of the group home staff members, or keep in contact with any of the other kids living there.

Of course, like all personal experiences, mine can do little other than offer an isolated view of a vast subject. However, I can’t help but attest for how seriously flawed this system seems to me. At the group home, my then-boyfriend had a strict schedule and strict rules. When I visited the home, the sterility of the environment was striking. The garbage, recycling, cupboards, and shelves were all labeled and it sort of reminded me of being in a school or summer camp environment. No cellphones were allowed in the home. We went out for a walk and were a few minutes later than agreed, and a social worker drove around town until he found us.

My purpose in telling this story is to point out how non-sensical it is for care children to be coddled until age 19, only to be dropped on their heads with no support system thereafter. Is there really a wonder why former care children struggle to secure self-sufficiency after leaving their group/foster home? Even teens who live with foster parents face a huge transition they may not be ready for. According to the Sun article, the government stops paying foster parents once a teen turns 19, and “even in cases where foster parents are willing to keep a foster child beyond that age, the rules often prohibit the young person from staying.”

I understand that the staff of group homes (and foster parents to an extent) are legally bound to protect the children they house, and this may entail strict rules, tight curfews, and close monitoring. What I don’t understand is how we can kick kids to the curb on their 19th birthday and expect no consequence, when such a dramatic transition at such a young age is obviously going to be detrimental.

Across the US, foster care is now available up to age 21 in 19 states. Ontario has recently followed suit, however BC is so far trailing behind in that progression.

According to the Sun, Minister for Children and Families Stephanie Cadieux said she “is aware of what is happening in other jurisdictions, but believes the BC government provides sufficient services for youth who have aged out of care.” Although Cadieux acknowledges that the disturbing stats of drop-out, homelessness, and addictions amongst former care children indicates an issue, she believes the government needs to do more to connect the youth to existing programs. Cadieux is quoted in the Sun article as saying “we don’t need to extend foster care to do that. What we need to do is work collectively across the government to ensure that kids aging out of foster care are accessing all of the services in the adult system that they need.”

Personally, I can’t help but wonder if working towards better connecting kids to available services sounds like a concrete plan or a crock of crap that will never actually amount to anything. At least by extending foster care to 21, care children will have the chance to have a parent for a little longer and an opportunity to finish high school, or get a head start on post-secondary. What is painstakingly obvious, though, is that our current system of pushing teens out of the nest before their wings have had the chance to develop (or in many cases, heal) isn’t working.