On February 7, Bernard Richard, Acting BC Representative for Children and Youth, released a report called Broken Promises, chronicling the heartbreaking story of Alex Gervais, a Métis teenager who had been in care since he was a child. In September 2015, Alex ended his life at age 18, jumping from the window of a budget hotel room in Abbotsford, where the Ministry of Children and Family Development had placed him for 49 days under the supervision of a subcontracted caregiver who did not provide him with adequate basic services, including clothes and food. In fact, the caregiver did not even see Alex in the 10 days preceding his death. Broken Promises highlights the numerous failings and missed opportunities of the child welfare system and calls for a sweeping reform of ongoing care and supports for youth in long-term care.
This is not the first tragic case of the untimely death of a young person who was approaching the age of majority — the age when, under provincial legislation, foster care is cut off. A 2015 report titled Paige’s Story documented the events that led to the overdose death of a 19-year-old homeless Indigenous woman who had recently “aged out” of the BC foster care system. It’s also not the first time that child welfare agencies ignored a youth’s desire to be connected to a caring adult: in Alex’s case, his grandmother had volunteered to play the caregiver’s role. During Richard’s his time as child and youth advocate in New Brunswick, he released several investigative reports, including the high-profile 2008 report on the tragic case of Ashley Smith. Ashley, a teen in the New Brunswick foster care system who was battling mental health issues, died while in a federal penitentiary in Ontario after years of ethically questionable incarceration, solitary confinement and inadequate state interventions.
Many do not see a coming-of-age birthday as a cause for celebration; instead, it is a sombre day of leaving everything they have ever known to live autonomously.
The common thread in these cases is that these young people were in unstable living situations, isolated and alone at the time of their death. Provincial age-of-majority restrictions on child protection services across the country often create immense anxiety for youth in care, as they look toward an uncertain future alone and devoid of support. Many do not see a coming-of-age birthday as a cause for celebration; instead, it is a sombre day of leaving everything they have ever known to live autonomously. Many are rightly terrified of leaving the system well before they are ready; they bring with them only a few garbage bags of items and the emotional baggage of trauma and broken promises. Some had at one point identified capable and caring adults in their lives who had expressed the desire to help them, but the child welfare system either never made the necessary connections or failed to nurture and support the relationships for the long term. Warning signs and cries for help were ignored, and much-needed mental health and addictions services were not provided in a timely manner.
What can academics, policy-makers, front-line workers, advocates and concerned citizens do to prevent cases like Alex’s from happening again and again? First, let’s truly listen to what youth in care have to say about the supporting adults in their lives. Let’s make those connections, support them and nurture them, so that youth can find permanent homes and establish caring relationships that will last beyond their time in the system. Let’s engage youth in and from care as viable contributors to social policy.
Let’s abandon our insistence that youth in care master independent living at the age of majority — a standard to which we seldom hold the rest of our children.
Second, let’s abandon our insistence that youth in care master independent living at the age of majority — a standard that we seldom hold the rest of our children to — and instead help establish and nurture lasting and caring relationships and support networks that all young people need. If a business case is necessary, we need look no further than the 2016 report from the Vancouver Foundation, Opportunities in Transition, which demonstrated that extending supports for youth in care up to age 25 would save the BC government over $200 million for each annual cohort that exits the child welfare system. Similar cost-benefit figures were highlighted in the Ontario Child and Youth Advocate’s 2011 report, 25 Is the New 21.
Third, let’s break down walls between governments, academia, advocates, front-line workers and communities, and start working together toward a common goal: improving the lives of youth in care. Let’s learn from what is going well and not so well in jurisdictions across the country. We could start with New Brunswick’s Integrated Service Delivery project for children and youth with emotional, behavioural and mental health issues. In place since 2011 in certain regions of the province, the project is delivering promising results.
And finally, let’s engage the public through volunteer programs, campaigns and dialogue opportunities. Too many people are unaware of the issues facing youth who will soon age out of foster care. At the same time, when presented with information, Canadians are largely supportive of extended care. The 2016 Youth Transitions survey by the Vancouver Foundation’s Fostering Change initiative found that 71 percent of British Columbians agree that young people from foster care should receive a stipend to support their cost of living until age 25.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Youth in care are no different. Every child deserves love, support and nurturing. As a community and as a nation, we need to join forces to make sure that no child, especially not the most vulnerable, gets left behind.
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