Around 90 advocates for youth in care gathered outside Vancouver City Hall on August 16 to celebrate “The 19th Birthday Youth in Care Deserve”, a community event and creative demonstration for youth transitioning out of the foster care system.
In British Columbia, youth under the care of the Ministry of Children and Family Development “age out” of the foster care system at 19, meaning they lose access to supports such as social workers and foster parents.
This period leaves youth aging out of care in vulnerable situations. Last year, a report from the B.C. Coroners Service investigated the deaths of 200 youths who died around the time of leaving the care system, noting their mortality rate was five times higher than the general population.
The event was put on by Fostering Change, an advocacy group for both youth in care as well as youth who have graduated from the care system. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight before the event, Fostering Change campaign organizer Susan Russell explained that the group launched the event to build camaraderie among youth who have experienced life in the care system.
“When someone ages out at age 19, there's a lot of apprehension and perhaps some anxieties,” Russell said. “They might have missed the chance to celebrate at that time, so we're giving them like a belated birthday party.”
The event opened with a series of speakers from Fostering Change.
In a blistering speech, Fostering Change member Adil Walker-Chagani described the experience of aging out of youth care as “scary, horrible, and traumatizing”.
“Let me tell you how it feels to age out.” he said. “Imagine you are hanging off a cliff with one hand, and the ministry is there, and instead of helping you up, they stomp on your hand, making you fall to your death. Or, for those of us who have seen it, it’s like in The Lion King when Scar digs his nails into Mufasa, making Mufasa fall to his death. That’s how it feels to age out.”
He described how aging out of care forces youth to grow up at a young age without many support systems in place.
“Say if I, for example, never had to go into care. I would have been able to work at least for a couple years without worrying about paying for expensive rent, saving up for the damage deposit, utilities, et cetera, because I would have been able to still live at my parents’ house and save up for all of that.”
Another organizer, Ashley Crossan, talked about how she wanted to make turning 19 a more celebratory experience for youth in care.
“For a lot of us, including me, turning 19 was scary and an isolating time,” she said. “There wasn’t time for cake and ice cream and a first legal glass of wine until much later. Instead, there was time to wave goodbye to my social worker, pack my bag, worry about income and the supports that I had while in care, and move into the world alone.
“But today is a true day of celebration and action, to say, ‘Hey, we the youth in and from care community are here, and we’re doing amazing things'—and to call on the government to provide universal and comprehensive supports to youth aging out of care so that transitioning out of care isn’t so scary and is more of a celebration”.
After the speeches, organizers from Fostering Change held up a net with multiple ribbons tied on it called the “social safety net”. The organizers wrote on these ribbons the things they wish they had on their 19th birthday, and they asked the audience to write on these ribbons what they think youth and care deserve.
The organizers then asked youth in care at the event to throw stuffed animals into the net that had pieces of paper attached to them detailing what they have experienced in care.
A quick glance at the net showed ribbons with phrases such as “compassion”, “positive outlook”, and “stability and community” written on them, while the stuffed animals featured words such as “abuse”, “anger”, and “insufficient support”.
Afterwards, the event organizers led the crowd into singing “Happy Birthday” before serving cake, pizza, and ice cream to the attendees.
The B.C. provincial government currently offers youth who age out of the foster care system an opportunity to receive funding through the Agreement with a Young Adult Program. This agreement provides youth up to $1,250 a month in financial assistance for two years.
However, the requirements to be able to apply for one are quite limiting: for example, you have to be in school, a rehabilitation program, or vocational or life skills training.
“They're very strict, and it leaves a lot of youth to fall through the cracks of the system,” Russell said.
Russell also noted the ministry doesn’t offer any support that’s beyond finances, meaning no support is provided in areas such as mental health. As a result of these factors, youth who age out of care are at risk for homelessness.
“Often a cycle of poverty emerges. And then as well, you're not receiving any counselling support if [you] need it, so mental health and wellness are pushed to the wayside.”
In May 2018, the B.C. Coroners Service’s investigation of the deaths of youth who aged out of care made a number of recommendations for the ministry to support youth in this transitionary period. They include expanding AYA programs to make them universal, collaborating with other ministries and relevant stakeholders to provide more effective services, and monitoring the effectiveness of support services for youth receiving care.
The ministry accepted these recommendations, and it has an October 2019 deadline to meet for many of them, including expanding AYAs.
When asked about what extended supports she would like to see for youth coming out of care, Russell said that she wants to see the government take a holistic approach to support, including for mental health, along with extended financial support.
“We like to see the holistic person being taken care of, rather than just the financial side that the AYA is currently focused on.”