Many groups are offering advice on changes to policies and programs to help youth in care to reach their potential. The following submission is offered by a very wise 22 year-old in her third year of university, and quite clearly on track to a very successful career. In her words:
The Children’s Aid Society became my parents when I was twelve years old. I was raised by a wonderful, caring foster mother who taught me all I needed to know to be a good person. I was guided by social workers who knew how to help me achieve my life goals. I was mentored by a Big Sister who took me under her wing when I needed someone to talk to. I attribute much of my success these past ten years to the dedication of these individuals, and their determination to see me survive even against the odds.
Despite the strength of my support network, as my twenty-first birthday approached I was not planning a party like most young adults my age. Rather, I was overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety, stress and the strong feeling of abandonment from my past re-surfaced as I would no longer be considered part of something that had been part of my identity for so long. Needless to say, my twenty-first birthday was anything but cause for celebration as I was loosing everything that kept my life in one piece; my financial support, my health coverage, my support networks and my sense of self.
I am at university, also working two jobs to cover my costs of living. I consider myself successful in my academic endeavors, but that is not to say that help wasn’t desperately needed along the way.
She also dedicates her submission to a fellow youth – a fine young man – who took his life shortly after he “aged out” in 2006.
Both young people experienced many hardships, were given many opportunities and were attending university. They were the shining stars; leaders who were doing something good with their lives.
In the words of our young advocate: I do know what it’s like to feel like you have lost everything that you counted on to survive. I do know what it feels like to be a part of something that gives you stability and sense of self, only to have it taken away. I do know what it feels like to not know how you will make it without becoming consumed by exhaustion from the stress of it all. This (the suicide) could have easily happened to me.
For this reason, I feel it is my responsibility to make people aware of the struggles that youth in care face by being forced to walk away from our stability, our family, our identity. It is my hope that some good will come of a terrible situation and that policy makers, social workers and youth can work together to ensure that NO youth is ever made to feel this way again.
A voice of experience offers the following proposal:
Statement of Need: For youth aging out of foster care, turning 21 is not a celebration, but rather a cause of anxiety, stress and fear of abandonment. Although the ideal situation would allow for extension of the age of emancipation to 24, there are changes that can be made now to help equip youth between the ages of 17 and 21 with the necessary tools for a successful transition into adulthood.
* Lack of policies surrounding preparation and completion of aging out process in terms of worker involvement etc., as well as insignificant credit given to ECM cases on a worker’s caseload.
* Expectation of youth to find housing and employment by themselves, while still in high school, as well as deal with housing arrangements after age 21.
* Upon 21 birthday, youth are no longer given a bus pass, often their only means of transportation .
* Youth lose health and dental benefits, including counseling coverage at age 21.
* Youth are often forced to work full time, or more than one job while still in school to make ends meet.
* For youth entering post secondary, there are often no housing arrangements made for holidays, or school breaks when students are expected to vacate residence.
* After turning 21, youth often feel like they have no place to turn when they are in trouble or need someone to talk to.
* Youth often have to work within a tight and often unreasonable budget to make ends meet and stay out of debt (See Appendix 1)
1 Assumes sharing accommodation in small town Ontario
2 Includes food, cleaning, prescription, hygiene
3 Required for post secondary
4 Includeds recreation, entertainment
5 Pens, paper, computer supplies
Hopes for the Future:
1) Support to youth: Upon entering foster care, social workers are required to have a certain number of visits with youth over a set period of time. Often these youth are returned home with follow up visits. Yet, there are insufficient policies regarding meetings with Crown wards who are preparing for independence. One solution to this issue could involve greater credit, and thus more time given to ECM cases, which may help youth feel more supported by their worker during such a stressful period in their lives. A possible timeline would include:
* Meetings with workers once every 6-8 weeks to discuss finances and management of bills, goals and/or assistance with post secondary education, grocery planning, dealing with roommate or relationship conflicts, etc.
* Meetings with workers every 4-6 weeks to discuss all of the above, as well as savings, credit management and planning for the future.
* Meetings or phone calls with workers every month to check in and ensure that youth are continuing to reach their goals, meeting their academic requirements and becoming financially ready to deal with aging out of care.
It is understandable that committing staff time to support youth will also require financial resources, but perhaps finding options in volunteers, or creating buddy systems between youth so they support one another could be looked at to help alleviate some of the time constraints.
2) Housing and employment. The expectation of youth to find housing and employment by themselves, especially while in high school, is unreasonable. It would be beneficial to utilize the same type of program as mentioned in section one, to use a trained volunteer who has the knowledge necessary to write an effective resume and who knows what to look for in a lease or housing agreement.
Another possible solution is to pair up youth to go together with a worker, thus giving the youth contact with someone going through the same situation as them, and offering the worker the chance to save some time by apartment/job hunting with two people at once. There could also be a small fund for youth who need to leave their housing situations and can’t afford the extra expenses of truck rentals etc. This could come from an emergency fund for youth who may need to access help after their 21st birthday.
3) Transportation. Bus passes are a necessity for all youth as a means of transportation for getting to and from work and school. A great deal of stress could be eliminated if these were given to youth who are still in school. Being in post secondary education is an accomplishment that should be rewarded and recognized. This is a small gesture that can make a huge difference in stress levels of youth who have to add an extra fifty dollars to their budget every month. One possible solution is purchasing bus passes for the term or for the summer, rather than each month individually, to keep costs lower.
4) Medical and dental care. After turning 21, youth no longer receive comprehensive health, prescription and dental benefits. This creates a number of issues including physical health concerns, mental health issues and a lack of preventative measures. The costs of medical care are not often explained to youth as a means of preventing them from feeling guilty about how much their care actually costs. When youth no longer have coverage, they will often avoid seeking medical attention, or be treated and receive a bill they cannot afford. These items should be addressed during the meetings described in section one, especially when youth get closer to 21. Another aspect is counseling and mental health. After dealing with a great deal of trauma and stress, youth often need counseling later in their lives when the challenges of moving, school and aging out of care become overwhelming. This is a medical expense that needs to be covered by the government as a preventative measure and to ensure that youth are receiving the medical treatments they need. The final area of concern is around preventative medicine. Youth in care are often more susceptible to teen pregnancy and are therefore encouraged to use some form of birth control. When these youth turn 21, they can often no longer afford the extra thirty dollars a month for birth control. This is a cost that should be funded through alternate means until youth are finished school.
5) Time management. Working full time or working two jobs is stressful for an average person, but when the stress of going to school and being a youth in care are added to the employment situation, it creates an even more stressful situation. The obvious solution to this problem is to extend ECM assistance to allow youth to finish their education before having to start working full time. In the interim, a possible solution could involve helping youth with time management skills. Partnering with a volunteer to help youth manage time wisely is an option, as well as perhaps finding a tutor to help youth effectively study and get other necessary school work done in the short amount of time that is available each week.
6) A family to come home to. As a student and a youth who doesn’t have a family to go home to, holidays and school breaks can be hard to deal with. The first aspect of the problem is making sure youth are aware that they can’t stay in their residences over these time periods, so they can start planning alternate arrangements. Another element to solving this issue is to make sure youth have somewhere to stay during these times by having a worker make a follow up call to ensure a safe and pleasant holiday or break. It could also be a possibility to arrange for youth to return to their previous or other foster home during these times so they do not feel like a burden on friends or other people they may stay with.
7) Someone to call. The issues faced on a regular basis don’t stop because youth turn 21 and, as such, the support they receive should not stop either. It is a terrible feeling to have exciting news about a grade or assignment or heartbreaking news about a failed relationship and feel as though you have nobody to share your experience with. There is a strong need for mentorship of youth as they begin the aging out process. Programs are needed to partner youth with volunteers who will fill the voids that social workers cannot due to time commitments and caseload restrictions.
8 Help with savings and emergency cash. While in school, youth should not have to worry about financial stresses which cause them to live pay cheque to pay cheque. If the steps outlined in section one are taken, there should be some savings available to youth as a safety net in case of emergency. An ideal budget would allow for further savings to occur so youth would have more opportunities when they have completed school, such as down payments on a car, or the ability to pay off any OSAP loans.
Many of the considerations outlined in the above proposal could be accomplished with a program of using trained volunteers as mentors. Partnerships with local organizations could make a big difference for youth who may want to do something worthwhile in their lives.
A buddy system could give youth the opportunity to engage with other youth dealing with similar experiences and perhaps as a result form lasting meaningful relationships from those interactions. There is also the possibility for older youth to assist younger youth with things such as OSAP applications or course selections, because they have recently gone through the same things. There could be potential for incentive of grocery vouchers or other useful items that will assist youth, as well as give them another reason to volunteer their time.
It is my hope that this proposal will create conversations regarding possible considerations for improvement of the lives of Crown wards in this region. One important thought to remember is that when you are a parent to a child, no matter how old they are, you never stop being their parent. I went to a conference once where Justin Trudeau said that we as Crown ward youth are the children of this country and often it is not because of anything we have done, but rather our circumstances, that placed us in the situations we are in today. Youth do not become adults on their 21st birthday and we should not be forced to grow up and miss out on the opportunity for success simply because of the situations we were placed in.
Even with a yearly foundation bursary of $4,500.00, a student on this budget would be required to work a total of 31 hours per week to make ends meet, and have no savings or extra cash for things students enjoy doing such as social events or nights out with friends.