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British Columbia's Outdated Foster Care System Is Contributing to Homelessness

Once young people age out of BC's broken foster care system, they are offered no support and often end up living on the streets of Vancouver.

by Behdad Mahichi
Sep 17 2015, 8:20pm

Tent City is a homeless camp in Vancouver. Photo via Flickr user urbansnaps - kennymc

For youth in British Columbia's foster care system, turning 19 means getting a rather daunting letter from the province. That letter will officially indicate that the support and care they previously were provided will be terminated abruptly.

There are just over 7,000 youth in government care in BC, and every year 700 of them age out of the system.

It's no secret that setbacks in the foster care system are directly correlated with Vancouver's poverty and homelessness problems. The 2015 Vancouver homelessness report shows only a small dent was made to the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless in the city, and Mayor Gregor Robertson's campaign promise seven years ago to end homelessness by 2015 has not been fulfilled.

Addiction, disability, mental health, and affordability are all still very real and serious causes, but the foster care system—which is in the responsibility of the province—is a cause that too often goes unmentioned.

Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang says that the city tried to build as many new housing units as homeless on the streets in 2014. But what the city saw in 2015 was a "new wave" of homeless consisting of people who reported being on the streets in the last year or sooner.

"Every time you build something, you know, the provincial social safety net pumps out more [people]," Jang told VICE.

Moving from home to home and having to deal with new social workers all the time can take a serious toll on mental health. And a lot of it is detailed on the File Folder Project, an online platform where individuals from BC's foster program share their success stories overcoming obstacles.

"Throughout my whole time in care I was emotionally, mentally, physically, sexually, socially, and financially abused," writes one individual. "Abused is a nice term—tortured is more realistic. Today I suffer with PTSD, DID, panic attacks, and severe social anxiety. I can't and don't trust anyone. I depend solely on my strong alters and spirituality to keep me on the right path as we work the rest of our lives to heal from the trauma inflicted by the Children's Aid Society."

This anonymous individual described her success in life as surviving BC's Children's Aid Society.

Youth in foster care, by definition, have experienced trauma. That's not to say youth coming out of foster care can't thrive, but many argue that the system should be providing even more services and support to help them thrive.

Each person who shares their story on the File Folder Project is asked how many different foster homes they have lived in. Answers range from five to 57.

BC representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond believes that the foster care system is out of date and has been calling on the province to make amendments—her points include opening more youth-oriented health care services, creating positions for youth secretariats to overlook a swift transition, and creating a better safety net for youth coming out of care by raising the age from 19 to 24.

Other provinces such as Alberta and Ontario have already taken steps to modernize their programs by extending their care and maintenance to age 24 and 21 respectively. In BC, however, when youth turn 19, they're expected to get their lives together and begin living independently.

The system is out of date mostly because times have changed since the Child, Family, and Community Services Act was written back in 1996. Educational standards and the job market have changed significantly. These days, landing a career rarely happens without acquiring an expensive post-secondary degree. And maturity aside, the cost of living alone is leading even those who attend university to come back home to their parents after finishing their degrees. People aren't really considered ready for adulthood at 19 anymore, given that most people have not done their education until well into their 20s, and it certainly doesn't happen overnight.

BC in particular needs to have a leading model for foster care, and that's largely because of Vancouver.

Vancouver, its mountainous glory aside, is a bottomless pit of unaffordable housing and a national hotspot for homelessness.

"Youth frequently want to go to Vancouver because they see it as being a big step. A positive place to go," Turpel-Lafond told VICE, noting many kids come in from the BC interior.

But when they get here, few resources are available to support them in their transition to adulthood. That's when youth become susceptible to getting stuck in places such as the Downtown Eastside. A report recently released by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) shows that nearly 60 percent of individuals who aged out of foster care between April 2013 and September 2013 in Vancouver and Richmond accessed income assistance within six months of leaving.

On top of that, welfare rates in BC haven't been raised for eight years, and the general welfare rate continues to be $600 [$455 USD] per month. As VICE previously reported, even Single Room Occupancies—which are considered to be the last resort when it comes to housing—can cost around $610 [$463 USD] per month.

However, the MCFD said that there are already programs in place that ensure a safe transition to independence. The Agreement with Young Adults is a $5-million [$3.8 million USD] program run by the province that provides financial assistance for young people transitioning into adulthood, up to the age of 24. Though the program distributes only about $1,000 [$760 USD] per month for 24 months to each person, which would only make the money available to about 208 people in the best case scenario.

In most cases, the Agreement with Young Adults is offered to individuals who will be attending post-secondary or continue schooling. Though this can become an obstacle for many. A report by Pivot Legal Society using data collected in 2007 shows that only around 21 percent of youth in foster care graduate from high school, compared to 78 percent in the general youth population.

But financial infeasibility aside, Turpel-Lafond said the root functionalities of the system continue to be the main issue.

"There's no highly trained staff. It isn't a very intensive system that invests in young people being ready for adulthood," she said.

"A lot of issues arise about the quality of support. In some cases, it was young people living in homes that were moldy, but more frequently it was young people living in an environment where the staff or others were not trained or qualified. Sometimes [staff] didn't even have full criminal record checks, other times they have been engaged in some behavior with the young people that was inappropriate."

Since 2006, Turpel-Lafond said that she's seen nearly 50 group homes close down.

Group homes are contracted between agencies and the government of BC. Most recently, a residential child-care agency on the Lower Mainland called Community Vision was shut down following an investigation. Twenty-three homes were shut down, with 33 youth being forced to relocate. The agency, which was supposed to care for high-risk youth, is alleged to have falsified first-aid certificates—which is a pretty big deal, considering the youth at hand depend on highly trained staff. Community Vision worked with the MCFD for 15 years, and collected $3 million [$2.8 million USD] each year from the contract. Details of the investigation cannot be obtained by law.

The province has not yet responded to Turpel-Lafond's recommendations of amendments, though they said in an email they are willing to explore ideas to improve the system.

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