Like many university students, Michelle Kim lived at home after starting classes. After leaving home originally at 16, Kim, who is a foster child, moved back in with her foster parents for about a year because of housing troubles. She appreciated not only their welcome but also the cooked meals, Internet access, and someone to talk to after a bad day.
"They've been a big emotional support, and without them”¦I couldn't have succeeded and become what I am today," she said during an interview at the Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks, where Kim works as a bursary coordinator.
As the cost of a university education increases, more young people live at home to save money. According to the 2001 census (2006 figures are not yet available), more than half (55.5 percent) of 20- to 24-year-olds in British Columbia were living with their parents, up from 47.9 percent in 1996.
But for former youths in care like Kim, this situation may not be an option. Last year, according to figures from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, 2,752 children left government care between April and November, resulting in many of them being cut off from the support their peers enjoy.
Nicole Herbert, FBCYICN director and a former foster child, said most people think that children in care benefit from more government resources than are actually available. During an interview at the federation's New Westminster office, Herbert said that there are no mandatory life-skills or independence programs for youths transitioning out of care. When they become legally independent at 19, many don't have experience with things most people take for granted: how to pay a bill, shop for groceries, or fill out a job application. This is one reason the FBCYICN's services extend until an individual reaches 24.
"There's a big misunderstanding as to what the government provides," Herbert said. "It's 'Ready or not, thank you very much, get out the door.'"
Annette Harding, the acting manager for the Ministry of Children and Family Development's children and youth in care unit, said on the line from Victoria that to best fit individual needs, the provincial government focuses on helping connect youths to services available in their communities, such as the FBCYICN.
As well, Harding noted, since 2001 the province has provided a $5,500 annual grant to youths pursuing postsecondary education or vocational training who were formerly in the permanent care of the ministry. This Youth Educational Assistance Fund grant is available from age 19 until a person turns 24, although individuals are free to appeal the grant's age requirement.
"At present in B.C., the ministry has not got other funding to provide more comprehensive post-transition services to better support that transition," Harding said, adding, "Nineteen is quite young to have to be fully competent in all ways: financial, socially, and so on."
Gordon Cruse, a retired guard at Victoria's Youth Custody Centre and the author of last year's Juvie: Inside Canada's Youth Jails, is also a foster parent. He remembers when a foster son moved out in the early 1990s, when he was 20 years old.
"I was his support," Cruse said at a Vancouver restaurant. "His parents were around, but not interested and not involved.”¦There's nothing available [for some children] unless the foster parents stick around in their lives and act as parents–and there's no obligation to do so."
There has been no national long-term survey to monitor the outcomes of youths leaving care, but the University of Victoria's school of social work attempted to address this lack of information through a project called Promoting Positive Outcomes for Youth From Care. The three-year study, which began in 2003, examined what happens to young people following their exit from foster care.
The project–the results of which will be released this fall–focused on 37 youths over a two-and-a-half-year period. About half of them were under 18, with the rest 19 or 20. Researchers used interviews to discern the impact of policies and programs during the transition from care. In a phone interview, lead researcher Deborah Rutman said that despite the study's small size, it closely matches findings from other jurisdictions in Australia and the U.S.
Only 40 percent of the youths interviewed graduated from high school; by the last interview, just two or three had gone back to finish. They spoke of difficulties accessing resources or programs such as income support and health care. Rutman said not having a support person to help them navigate these systems may have exacerbated their frustration. Other studies have found that only 7.5 percent of youths in care are eligible for university, due to their academic record.
"It's really hard for people if they haven't finished [school] by the time they have left the care of the ministry," Rutman said. "Our findings suggest that it's really difficult for these people to finish high school [afterward]."
In September 2006, the provincial child and youth officer and the provincial health officer released The Health and Well-Being of Children in Care in British Columbia, a report aimed at increasing understanding of outcomes for youths in care by tracking their use of government-funded services. The first in a planned series, the report focused on health services. According to the provincial government, the second report, which focuses on educational outcomes, is due in the next week or two.
As well, the newly appointed B.C. representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, has noted in presentations the need for long-term support of children in care. In a March speech to the provincial select standing committee on children and youth, she asked whether or not children in care are ready to go into postsecondary education, and whether those institutions have bridging programs to support them. (Turpel-Lafond did not respond to an interview request.)
Rutman said that about a quarter of the youths involved in her study consulted two former youths in care who were available through the project to help with everything from scholarship applications to moving into a new house. She said only two of the individuals involved in the study accessed a local branch of the Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks.
For youths who do make use of its support, the FBCYICN provides information about scholarships, employment, and independent living, as well as transition kits packed with everything from cutlery sets to toothpaste.
Rutman said her study found that social workers and foster parents are another source of support.
Cruse said he remains in touch with his foster son, who has since become a professional cook. He said that they still meet regularly, and when the young man's first son was born, he named him Gordon, after his foster dad.
For information on the government's Youth Educational Assistance Fund, visit www.aved.gov.bc.ca/studentaidbc/specialprograms/yeaf.htm .