This article by Katie Hyslop, Tyee Solutions Society, originally appeared in The Tyee on 14 Jan 2016, and was supported by Fostering Change to help increase awareness and engagement in issues facing young people in transition from care to adulthood.
British Columbia's Ministry of Children and Family Development is the parent to over 7,000 kids in care right now.
It's a time and cash-strapped parent, however. And one that, try as it might, hasn't been able to ensure that every one of its kids gets a high school diploma, a drivers' license, or a resume listing more than occasional babysitting gigs.
Most B.C. youth leave home when they feel ready, though these days more than four in 10 are still under the family roof in their twenties. The Crown's kids, on the other hand, are cut off -- "exit care" -- abruptly at 19, seldom as well equipped as their parented peers.
Barely one-quarter has a high school diploma when they age out, just 27 per cent in 2013/14. Unsurprisingly, many fail to launch into a productive life. Of Canada's estimated 8,000 homeless youth, almost half have had some experience with provincial care.
For a fortunate few in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, however, there are better options. Community service agencies and non-profits in the region raise public and private funding to help young people in care make one of the most difficult transitions of their lives.
Stepping in when youth are preparing to leave government care -- or have already left and are floundering -- they help kids focus on achieving goals in housing, education, and employment. Most continue to welcome youth back for help until they're in their mid-twenties, just as a family might.
Vancouver's Portland Hotel Society for example, has found supportive housing for 42 challenging drug-addicted, mentally ill youth in 3.5 years of its Youth Housing First program. Over half have moved on to other supportive housing. All were youth the ministry, more commonly known as MCFD, knew about, but couldn't help.
"If you have a young person who's 15 or 16 and they keep on returning to a [single residence occupancy hotel] or a shelter because that's where their mother or auntie is -- the person that for whatever reason they feel safe and at-home with -- MCFD can't support that by offsetting the cost of rent if that parent has been deemed unstable or unsafe," said Vicky Shearer, youth coordinator for the Portland Hotel Society. "And they can only forcibly extract that kid so many times in a day."
'Restorative,' culturally specific care
While over half of youth in B.C.'s care are Indigenous, the ministry, mandated in law to attend to every child referred to it, can't offer much in the way of Indigenous-specific services.
Smaller organizations like Vancouver Aboriginal Child and Family Services Society can be more specialized. The ministry contracts the society to provide services to urban Indigenous families in the Lower Mainland.
The Society offers culturally relevant support to roughly 500 families from 30 different Indigenous cultures, says its special projects officer, Jeffrey Schiffer. "The ministry has traditionally done child welfare for aboriginal people, whereas we're doing child welfarewith aboriginal people," Schiffer said.
The Society calls it "restorative child welfare" -- an authentic connection to your own culture that can mean the difference between keeping your kids and losing them to the government. To achieve it, the Society develops its programs in direct consultation with Indigenous people based on First Nations and Metis ways of knowing.
"Section 13 of the Child, Family, and Community Service Act basically outlines all of the reasons why a child can be removed from their family," Schiffer notes, including physical and sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, and neglect. "We would claim that culture is a protective factor against all of those [offences happening]."
Abbotsford Community Services similarly helps former and current youth in care as well as their families, thanks to the ministry and other funders. Lisa Incantalupo-Ardzivian, who supervises its Caregiver Support Program for foster parents, says its relationship with the ministry is "excellent."
But Abbotsford Community Services has an advantage over its public funder. "It's one-on-one individualized care," said Incantalupo-Ardzivian, made possible in part by taking on only 22 families or files at once.
Gale Stewart, executive director of Aunt Leah's Place, another non-profit organization, says the success of independent agencies like hers can't really be compared to the ministry's record. The two, she says, aren't "in competition."
Instead, she sees the relationship as "like in a parented home: if you want your child cared for, it's your responsibility to find the right daycare, to find the right school." For children in public care, "I think that's the role of government. The ministry should be in the business of picking good organizations to do their work."
The ministry agrees. "Social workers work directly with youth to help them identify which programs and services will best meet their unique needs and circumstances," its media staff emailed in response to questions. "These may include supports from contracted service providers."
Care budget 'pummelled'
That model is harder to employ in smaller communities where there are fewer such providers. And even in the Lower Mainland, most have seen their public funding reduced. Money that used to flow from provincial taxes on gaming to programs like early-childhood development and meals for at-risk youth has been trimmed back.
The Pacific Community Resource Society "used to provide group homes at a much greater level than we do now," said Jocelyn Helland, associate director of its Vancouver youth services. But facing budget cuts in the early 2000s, she said the ministry prioritized young children over youth, and group homes were sacrificed.
"The care system that was already not in great shape has just been pummelled since the early 2000s," Helland said. Her own agency's "workers were driving young people downtown to [skid-row single room occupancy hotels] because it was the only thing they could afford."
Resources for youth still living with their families but struggling with poverty, mental illness, or drug addictions -- either their own or their parents' -- are now fewer than ever.
In September, a youth named Alex Gervais either fell or jumped from the fourth-floor window of an Abbotsford hotel room, months after being placed there by the ministry after they shuttered his group home, also run by an outside agency contracted by the government. (Yesterday, the ministry and provincial Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond announced in a joint report a policy to end the practice except in "exceptional circumstances when no other option is available.")
How much the provincial parenting budget has been trimmed is hard to pin down. According to Turpel-Lafond in a 2014 report, the ministry's coffers were at that time at least $100 million below where they should be based on inflation between 2008/09 and 2013/14.
As a result, said Turpel-Lafond, outside supports have been reduced to "only a few niche programs focused at either kids in care or very specific target populations. And we are missing a lot of young people that, in other times, we would have been able to support."
Meanwhile, the average frontline ministry worker is juggling 28.5 cases. According to a 2014 BC Government Employees Union report, 80 per cent of front line social workers surveyed had over 20 cases per month; nearly half juggled over 30.
The ministry disputes direct comparisons between their budgets, noting that programs end and responsibilities change ministries. It said it has hired 110 new frontline social workers since November 2014, with a goal of adding 90 more by the end of this month.
But it accepted the finding of a government-mandated inquiry by Bob Plecas, a former deputy minister under New Democratic and Social Credit governments, that it needs more money.
"We agree a budget lift is desirable next year if we are to continue some of the activities Mr. Plecas identifies as worth continuing or accelerating," its statement said, adding that the next provincial budget will reveal "what kind of lift is possible."
Looking for a 'lift'
Turpel-Lafond believes any lift should expand support for community service agencies. They "understand that a life will require food, shelter, clothing, education, employment, and good pro-social relationships," she said, and "often provide housing, transition from school back to work, support with academic upgrading, nutrition, medical care -- a wrap-around, hands-on parental role."
She also thinks the province might take a page out of both the service agencies' manuals and parental practice, by keeping better track of its kids once they leave home. "We need to pay attention to how our kids are doing in our communities, and to see the improvement."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to create a Youth Advisory Council of 16 to 24 year-olds to advise him on how national issues impact their age group. Turpel-Lafond wants something similar in B.C., accompanied by monitoring of employment and other markers of the transition to adulthood for kids formerly in care.
The ministry does track graduation rates for its kids, but not follow-up data on employment, housing, or other adulthood milestones it has "no legal authority to collect," its email said.
Most of the service agencies I met with receive a mix of ministry and private funding. (Disclosure: private sources include the Vancouver Foundation, which is also among the funders of Tyee Solutions Society. See full statement at end of this story.) None has the capacity to take on the over 7,000 youth currently in the ministry's care, or the thousands more receiving its services.
But even with their help, the "lift" in the next B.C. budget will have to be a big one if kids leaving provincial care are to start adult life on a level playing field with their parent-raised peers.