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Advocates want governments to better support youth leaving foster care amid pandemic

Advocates for youth in government care are calling on the provinces and territories to continue supporting those who are aging out of the child welfare system and trying to make it on their own during the pandemic.

Advocates for youth in government care are calling on the provinces and territories to continue supporting those who are aging out of the child welfare system and trying to make it on their own during the pandemic.

Melanie Doucet, senior researcher at the Child Welfare League of Canada, said vulnerable youth who transition out of foster care or a group home, at age 18 or 19 in most jurisdictions, already experience higher rates of unemployment, homelessness and mental health issues.

"It's almost impossible for them to find a job, and housing is really difficult to come by," Doucet said from Montreal, where she is also a McGill University researcher studying the effects on youth aging out of care during the pandemic.

As COVID-19 lockdowns began a year ago, the league joined forces with over a dozen groups to form the National Council of Youth in Care Advocates to urge governments across Canada to put moratoriums in place for those who would be aging out of care.

"We're starting to think about this new normal that the government keeps talking about, that Canadian society is going to enter after the pandemic is over," Doucet said.

She said an estimated 6,700 youth age out of the system in Canada every year, amounting to about 11 per cent of those who are in care.

It's "unethical and inhumane" to cut them off from supports when they reach the age of majority if they aren't ready to make that shift, just like youth from any family, she said.

Quebec is the only province that didn't establish a moratorium preventing youth from being pushed out of the system during the pandemic, and support from other agencies has not always been available, Doucet said.

Provinces that had unofficial moratoriums, including Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador, have resumed transitioning youth out of care, she said.

Moratoriums in Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are set to expire at the end of the month. Saskatchewan's moratorium will last until June.

Youth in British Columbia will get housing supports until March 2022 but others will expire in September. Ontario extended its moratorium until September of next year.

As for the territories, Nunavut did not set any moratorium allowing youth to stay in care, while Yukon and the Northwest Territories have kept youth in care with no dates on when the moratoriums would expire.

Cheyanne Ratnam, co-founder and executive director of the Ontario Children's Advancement Coalition, said her memories of getting closer to her 18th birthday before she aged out of care are fuelling her advocacy for youth facing greater challenges during the pandemic.

"It was such a scary time knowing that I was going to be thrown into the fire again and being back to the instability that I faced before I was 14," Ratnam said.

Ratnam said her organization is working with the Ontario government to create a new model of care for youth after the province closed the office of the children's advocate in 2019.

The federal government established a moratorium a year ago to keep First Nations youth who live on reserves in care during the pandemic. Indigenous Services Canada said in an emailed statement that it will "continue to cover the eligible costs of First Nations child and family services agencies providing services to youth who would normally be aging out of care" for as long as the pandemic lasts.

Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, said the moratorium is creating unnecessary worries for First Nations, Metis and Inuit youth, especially if they are unable to access supports that have moved online, such as counselling.

"Instead of just saying we're not going to discharge children until the public health measures are lifted, which would provide some certainty to young people, they pick these arbitrary dates, which just raises anxiety. (Youth) don't know if they're just going to be out on their own in a matter of weeks."

Blackstock said youth who are moving into communal living centres could be exposed to COVID-19 while they're in unstable housing and are not eligible for vaccines.

While some provinces provide limited supports after the age of majority, they all should do that as part of a national strategy, she said.

"We know from science that young people's brains don't fully develop until they're 25. So, the idea of putting First Nations, Metis, Inuit and other young people from care out into the world with no adult, no support for them, at a young age of 18, really, really needs to stop."

Jennifer Charlesworth, the representative for children and youth in British Columbia, said a program allowing youth to access supports until they reach age 26 does not kick in automatically and the application process includes restrictive criteria that few people can meet to get funding for post-secondary tuition, for example.

"There's a provision that you can only access it for a period of time, for only 48 months," Charlesworth said, adding she wants the supports extended to age 27 to allow youth to become more independent because "every child that comes into care has experienced trauma."

Toronto resident Savvoi Pessoa, 17, said he went into foster care at age 12 and began living independently last summer by renting from a family friend while he's still in the child welfare system.

Pessoa said he's glad Ontario will provide support until September 2022, giving him more time to learn skills like cooking and finding a job.

"The pandemic is just another factor that makes aging out difficult for certain people," he said.

Pessoa said he feels he'll run out of time as he tries to find a way to be successful and meet expectations to be on his own.

"I'm not going to say that I wouldn't last but it would be very, very difficult, especially without a large support system to back you up," he said.

He said he also fears he may face barriers because he's Black, based on the experiences of others he's spoken with.

"I've talked to people in care who are white, people in care who are Black, and we discussed among each other the sort of issues that we have to go through. And that idea of systemic racism is still very prevalent to people of colour."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press

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