Rachel Malek hasn’t always had a smooth road in life. After leaving home at the age of 14, she experienced homelessness and exploitation, and was involved with the foster-care system. She also endured some mental-health challenges along the way.
But Malek’s life took a positive turn when she met Kris Archie, an Indigenous woman who was then managing the Vancouver Foundation’s Fostering Change initiative. It's a multiyear effort with a mission to “improve policy practice, and community connections for young people transitioning from foster care to adulthood”.
Fostering Change aims to achieve this by amplifying young people’s voices in planning and decision-making that affects them directly.
“We were part of a group called the Seven Sisters Collective that was organizing a memorial for young people in care who had been lost,” Malek recalled in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “She told me about this trip that Fostering Change was doing to Olympia.”
Malek accepted Archie’s invitation to join about 40 young people who travelled to the Washington state capital by bus in early 2016 to witness a couple of hundred former youths in care and formerly homeless young people speak to state politicians.
“Fostering Change had been building a community movement for a couple of years before that,” Malek recalled. “And this was kind of our politicization and our realization that we could make a difference in the government and actually change the laws. They had changed the laws down in Washington progressively for 10 years.”
Malek was also part of a team that collected more than 17,000 signatures from the public on a petition. It called for youths aging out of care to be able to count on three things until they were 25: consistent financial support; long-term relationships with caring, dependable adults; and a chance to connect and contribute to communities.
Meanwhile, a Vancouver Foundation–financed Insights West survey of almost 2,000 people in 2016 found that 76 percent felt that the cutoff for receiving assistance and support should be extended after foster kids turned 19.
This was followed by an invitation to all candidates in the 2017 provincial election to back the “Support the 700” pledge to, among other things, advocate for increased funding for the approximately 700 youths who age out of foster care every year.
Seventeen candidates who were later appointed to the NDP cabinet—including Finance Minister (and former foster mom) Carole James—were among the signatories.
Vancouver Foundation was responding to youth homelessness
It was highly unusual for a community foundation—let alone one with more than $1.1 billion in assets—to get so deeply involved in an advocacy campaign.
The Vancouver Foundation’s director of learning and evaluation, Trilby Smith, told the Straight by phone that Fostering Change grew out of its youth-homelessness initiative. According to the foundation, about 40 percent of homeless youths have experience in the child-welfare system.
“The decision was made here to focus on that particular issue,” she said, “and to take more of a strategic approach.”
This involved not only providing grants to community organizations addressing this issue—and in 2014-15, almost $1 million was allocated—but also taking other measures.
Those included encouraging people in the community to join the campaign, creating a messaging and communication guide based on public-opinion research, holding public meetings in the community, and generating media coverage.
It culminated in a trip to Victoria in late October to enable young people to lobby politicians directly. The campaign will wind down at the end of this year.
According to the communication guide, there are approximately 10,000 children and youths in government care.
Approximately 65 percent have been diagnosed with a mental-health issue at least once in childhood, and 55 percent are Aboriginal.
“Kids age out and there’s nothing for them,” Smith noted. “That wasn’t something that was very widely known.”
She added that B.C.’s former representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, collaborated with the Vancouver Foundation on several research projects and in convening young people to discuss various issues of concern. A 10-member Fostering Change youth advisory circle brought forward the voices of those with direct experience as foster kids.
“They really served as the key advisers for all of the work that we’ve done under Fostering Change,” Smith said.
Malek is one of those 10 advisers. Now 25 years old, she has already won several honours for her advocacy for young people in and from government care, including the B.C. Child and Youth in Care Achievement Award. Her consulting company, Authentic Engagement, provides planning, facilitation, and writing services to guide community-engagement work with marginalized communities.
“There’s a really compelling story around how we’re making the political change, but that’s all at the governmental level,” Malek said. “A big question that kept coming up again and again at the youth advisory circle was if we assume the government is doing everything it can, what can we still do better?
“We know that social capital and social relationships are hugely important, and connection to community is hugely important in people who are aging out,” she continued. “And that’s something that’s owned by and belongs in the community. That’s up to every one of us to become aware of the issue…and to actively make a connection with them and to recognize that’s going to make a really big difference.”
Another member of the youth advisory circle, Kali Sedgemore, told the Straight by phone that there are many misconceptions about people formerly in foster care.
Sedgemore, a peer-research associate with the provincial At-Risk Youth Study, an initiative of the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, said that foster kids are saddled with negative labels or they’re perceived as being well-off because they’re in the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
He's also quick to criticize efforts to portray current and former youths in care as helpless, labelling this as "foster-care porn" that's often designed to generate money.
Sedgemore, 25, emphasized that it’s imperative to ensure that youths are able to contribute to discussions that affect them.
With an onslaught of fentanyl-related overdoses, this can have life-and-death consequences.
“It’s just a fact that society really needs to realize that harm reduction works and youth are going to experiment—especially youth that are in foster care,” he said. “They want to escape from the world, and drugs come into play with that.”
First Call helped organize legislature event
To advance the campaign, the Vancouver Foundation enlisted the help of First Call–B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.
Its provincial coordinator, Adrienne Montani, told the Straight by phone that people in her organization were excited by the amount of resources that the Vancouver Foundation could bring to the Fostering Change campaign.
It enabled First Call to hire a former foster kid, Dylan Cohen, as a youth coordinator to organize the event at the B.C. legislature on October 24. All the MLAs who signed the Support the 700 pledge were invited to a luncheon at a nearby hotel. This enabled former foster kids to speak directly to the politicians.
Premier John Horgan spent some time hearing from the youths and later joined them during a demonstration on the lawn of the legislature. There was also some street theatre, MCed by former foster kid Diego Cardona, in which people could use boxing gloves to knock down an inflatable object marked “poverty”, “isolation”, or “homelessness”.
“For a foundation to fund a campaign like this is unique,” Montani declared.
She also revealed that the young people spent a day in late September deciding which topics would be raised by the different speakers at the Victoria rally.
Among them was Malek, who focused on former foster kids facing multiple challenges, including finding housing while coping with mental illness and poverty.
“A couple of us ended up doing a little side trip to the representative for children and youth’s office,” Malek recalled. “There wasn’t enough room in the chamber for all of us. It was a really impactful day for everybody.”
One of the politicians present at the lunch was Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark. A former foster child herself, Mark is a long-time advocate for kids in and out of government care. She also worked with Turpel-Lafond before entering politics in 2016.
In a phone interview with the Straight, Mark described Fostering Change as “very grassroots”, and she praised the Vancouver Foundation for putting young people at the centre of this initiative while bringing the corporate community onboard.
She pointed out that kids in care have the right to be heard under provincial legislation, as well as the right to be informed of decisions affecting their lives and the right to call the office of the representative for children and youth.
“I’ve always been an advocate of those rights,” Mark said. “What you’re seeing is these young people demonstrating their rights in action. They know they have a right to be heard.”
As a cabinet minister, Mark oversaw the expansion of free tuition for young people who have aged out of care to all 25 of B.C.’s public postsecondary institutions. She emphasized that young people formerly in government care are capable of great things—and she remains perplexed as to why the previous government didn’t do this.
“We’re talking about a small group of young people who’ve been let down by adults in their lives,” Mark said.
She also talked about how young people in care can grow stronger from their experiences.
“Resilience is about being knocked down and getting up, being knocked down and getting up again,” Mark said. “No matter how much you’ve seen in the world that is dark, it’s about seeing the light. And these young people—no matter what—when I see them, they have enthusiasm. They have dreams. They want to do big things.”
She said that some of them even want to become B.C.’s representative for children and youth.
"Government has to see these kids as our kids," Mark emphasized.
This is reflected in the language used by the minister of children and family development, Katrine Conroy, who's talked about how parents continue helping their children after they turn 19. The obvious implication is that the government should be doing the same for youths in its care.
Progress is occurring on several fronts
Although it has become easier for them to attend postsecondary institutions, youths who've exited government care still face many other challenges.
When contacted by the Straight, Jules Wilson, executive director of the Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks (FBCYICN), rattled off a long list of issues of concern: poverty, overcoming trauma, access to resources when transitioning out of government care, having workers support young people in ways that feel authentic to them, coming to terms with their cultural identity, and finding affordable housing.
He applauded the Fostering Change initiative for providing significant resources to develop more young leaders who have come out of government care.
“I think the impact with the public was you had an organization that had some clout, and definitely some strong connections and resourcing behind them, who were able to raise the profile of the issues of youth,” Wilson said.
He can recall a time when it was difficult to find people to participate in processes dealing with aging out of care. That’s no longer the case.
“There are definitely hundreds of young people who have been supported and continue to be mentored to be able to play those roles throughout the province,” he said. “I think Fostering Change has definitely had an impact on that, as have other organizations.”
For example, ICBC is working with the FBCYICN to help those aging out of care to obtain driver’s licences through a program called Take the Wheel. Through a driver-training bursary, youths in and from government care are given an opportunity to obtain their licence, which can help them find work or spend more time with friends and family.
A couple of years ago, the Ministry of Children and Family Development created a youth advisory council to incorporate the voices of those who had been in government care. And, of course, there’s the free tuition for kids who’ve come out of care.
Wilson offered effusive praise to Mark for being a role model for young people and for frankly sharing her experiences with them.
“There are others I know and who I’ve talked to who feel quite strongly that the world is totally open and available to them because of what they’ve seen from Melanie Mark,” he said.
More support could save money in long run
The Vancouver Foundation has also made the case that providing more supports to youths can save the public treasury money over the long term.
It commissioned a report by SFU economist Marvin Shaffer and family-policy researcher Lynell Anderson that noted there are $222 million to $268 million in annual societal costs associated with youths aging out of foster care at the age of 19.
They concluded that a basic package of support of $1,375 per month to provide cost-of-living support for these youths after they age out, until they’re 24, would cost approximately $57 million.
“Studies in other jurisdictions suggest that the benefits of improved educational outcomes from increased support will, in themselves, pay for the incremental funding requirements,” the researchers stated.
Even if gains didn’t materialize, the overall cost would be just $2.75 per month per household.
“Beyond the moral arguments, the economic benefits alone—reduced need for income assistance, higher earnings and more taxes paid by these youth, reduced government health care, criminal justice-related and other service expenditures—will exceed the costs of this investment,” they added.
The Vancouver Foundation’s public-opinion research shows that 92 percent of B.C. parents with children over 19 provide support to them. This can include helping with housing, transportation, or postsecondary-education costs, as well as covering some grocery, health, medical, and clothing expenses.
More than half of parents with children between 19 and 28 have at least one of them living in their home.
Housing remains a huge challenge
Fostering Change was created, in part, because too many young people were ending up living on the streets or couch surfing. Malek and Sedgemore are just two of many adults formerly in government care who can attest to the magnitude of this problem.
In the meantime a registered charity funded by the Vancouver Foundation, Aunt Leah’s Place, is helping current and former foster children through a variety of programs.
It provides supportive housing for young mothers and for youths transitioning out of government care. Its Friendly Landlord Network connects youths who’ve aged out of care with landlords willing to rent places to them.
The executive director, Sarah Stewart, told the Straight by phone that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find homes for $750 or $800 per month, which is what these young people can afford. The organization tries to encourage landlords to cut rents to house youths formerly in care, but it's not always possible to convince them, given high housing costs.
“That really butts up hard against what one-bedroom or bachelor rents are going for,” Stewart said.
Aunt Leah’s Place also operates a B.C.-government funded house for mothers under the age of 19, which sharply reduces the likelihood of their kids being apprehended by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.
The charity also operates two other houses for older mothers, which is part of a continuum of care. These are funded in part by sales of Christmas trees at five lots it operates around the Lower Mainland.
One of the residents, Marcia Tait, told the Straight by phone that there need to be more organizations providing housing for youths aging out of foster care.
“Even if you have references…it’s challenging because a lot of people won’t rent to young moms, young couples, and young people,” she said.
On the cover of this week’s Georgia Straight, Rachel Malek is photographed at one of the charity’s Christmas-tree lots.
Although she doesn’t live at an Aunt Leah’s Place home, she appreciates how it’s helping young people aging out of care.
She also gave a big shout-out to the Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks, which serves young people between the ages of 14 and 24.
“I got my first job, real job, in the city with them when I was a 17-year-old high-school dropout—and I’ve been working or volunteering with them in some role pretty much since then,” Malek said. “What I gained there is a sense of family. When you start connecting with your peers—with people who have these similar experiences—you build a really tight community really fast. And you start to have these social supports, these connections, these relationships, and somewhere to go on Christmas Eve that you might not have had in your life. So it’s a really, really cool community.”More