Youth in care deserve better as they become adults

As the May 9th provincial election approaches, one of the policy issues I hope will get some attention is the question of extending financial support to young people in the foster-care system, after they turn 19. As it stands, the financial and other types of support available to children in government care (including regular social worker support and monthly maintenance payments to foster parents) end, quite abruptly in most cases, at age 19 –  a transition that is known as “aging out.”

Nineteen is a pretty young age to have to navigate today’s complex world completely on your own, but even more so for young people in care, since being there means they’ve already experienced major loss, neglect, trauma or abuse – and the foster system can be traumatizing in itself. Also, social mobility, and even survival, in today’s credential-oriented world depends on having marketable skills, which usually requires some type of formal post-secondary education, whether vocational or academic. That’s expensive and may not be easily accessible to youth in care, who have much lower high-school graduate rates than other students. The need for post-secondary education in order to access the job market, along with the Lower Mainland’s astronomically high housing costs, are why we’re now seeing about 60% of young people in BC between the ages of 20 and 24 living at home with their families.

But what if you don’t have that option? With no financial support and weak (or non-existent) family ties, youth coming out the foster care system are obviously at a major disadvantage. No surprise, then, that they disproportionately end up homeless or dependent on income assistance, at least temporarily.

I recently (well, November) attended a workshop on this topic at Housing Central, the annual conference of the BC Nonprofit Housing Association (BCNPHA). The conference is aimed at the nonprofit housing providers that comprise the BCNPHA’s membership, but it also offers a wide range of workshops on various aspects of affordable housing and homelessness more generally. One of these was put on by Aunt Leah’s Place, an nonprofit group that provides support to youth in care as and after they age out of the system. A staffer from Aunt Leah’s led participants through an eye-opening exercise in which we were asked to remember all the types of help we received from our families between the ages of 19 and 24 and estimate the cost of that support if we had had to pay for it ourselves. Free or cheap housing is an obvious type of support that many people receive from their families after 19, but the list is much longer. The basics include groceries, utilities, transportation, medical and dental insurance, phone bills and clothing. Better-off families may spend much more to support their children as they transition into adulthood, including by subsidizing or completely paying for tuition, cars, travel and down-payments on homes. I was glad the facilitator did not ask us to share the dollar figures we came up with in public, because I thought this calculation process could trigger a lot of emotions – of everything from overwhelming gratitude to deep hurt as people reflected on the ways they were or weren’t supported by their families as they became adults. While we weren’t expected to share our figures publicly, those who wanted to were invited to anonymously write the dollar amount they came up with on a piece of paper, which the facilitator collected and wrote on a whiteboard. The figures from our group of about 25 participants (of widely varying ages) ranged from the negatives – those who actually helped support their families financially between the ages of 19 and 24 – to sums over $60,000. Quite the disparity.

Of course, financial help is just one type of support that intact, functional families provide their children with, and perhaps not even the most important. Youth in care also lack social support from their families of origin – and so may be lacking in life skills and just places to turn when things go wrong. Life is often not smooth when you’re a young person just figuring out how the world works. Recovering from the trials and tribulations of adult life (whether that’s locking yourself out of your apartment, losing a job, getting in a car accident, suffering a breakup, or worse) is harder the first time around and also harder if you have no one to reassure you that these things happen to everyone or to offer advice on how to get through the tough patches. Even when things are going well, functioning families provide a framework of support, as well as expectations, that help young adults not only find their way in the world, but also make the most of their potential. Former youth-in-care do not benefit from this type of built-in intangible but crucial social support.

This is why extending financial and other supports to youth in care beyond their nineteenth birthday makes so much sense, on both compassionate and fiscal grounds. Various advocacy groups and social agencies, including the Vancouver Foundation, have taken up this call. To its credit, the provincial government did recently make some changes in that direction. In late 2016, it expanded an existing program (Agreements with Young Adults) that provides financial support to about 650 youth in care, if they meet certain criteria. The expansion was expected to help another 500 youth. However, considering that we have somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 children in care in B.C. and about 700 of them age out of the system every year, that program and its expansion by no means meets the extent of the need. More policy changes are needed – thus I’ll be watching for news on this issue as the election approaches.

If you’re interested in this issue or others related to social and affordable housing, you might want to check out the BCNPHA’s conference in 2017. At the 2016 edition, I also attended interesting workshops on creating opportunities for new nonprofit housing in Metro Vancouver, land trusts, and the controversial practice of including separate doorways (sometimes referred to as “poor doors”) in mixed market and social housing developments. There was also a great keynote presentation by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Recent news items and resources on “aging out”