During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services placed a moratorium on its child welfare policy that requires youth to leave foster care and group homes once they turn 18. At the same time, the province committed to a child welfare redesign to strengthen support for youth leaving care.
The moratorium expires on March 31, with a redesigned policy coming into effect on April 1. While the new policy appears promising for youth leaving care, there are some important gaps that require the Ontario government’s attention.
The pandemic illuminated shortcomings in Ontario’s child welfare policy. High numbers of youth aging out of care face poverty and homelessness, do not complete high school and have significant mental and physical health challenges.
Under these circumstances, many experience victimization and criminalization. It is clear this framework does not effectively support youth leaving care to enter adulthood on a steady footing.
The ministry’s commitment to a child welfare redesign is welcome and timely. The new policy will replace two policy directives: Continued Care and Support for Youth (CCSY) and Supporting Consistency of Care for Youth Whose Arrangements are Scheduled to Expire During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
It also outlines new requirements to prepare youth for a successful transition from care to adulthood. Taking a youth-centred, strengths-based and trauma-informed approach, the policy aims to:
“assist youth to achieve physical and emotional well-being, acquire basic life management skills and develop social networks that include connections to caring adults and the community while respecting a child’s identity characteristics and cultural connections.”
Earlier intervention, extended involvement
Currently, child protection workers initiate transition planning when youth are still in care. When they turn 18 and leave care, most youth are eligible to access CCSY. Through CCSY, youth receive financial support, health benefits, and may connect with a youth-in-transition worker. These supports expire when they turn 21.
Evidence shows that early intervention is critical to prepare youth for their transition to adulthood. Youth will now begin transition planning on their 13th birthday. Between the ages of 13 and 18, planning will focus on health, education, identity, family and social relationships, emotional and behavioural development and self-care skills.
At age 18, most youth will still be required to leave their care placements. However, they will be eligible to receive transition supports, like those available under CCSY, until they turn 23. This amounts to at least 10 years of concentrated transition support which will hopefully reduce the likelihood of them facing poor outcomes.
While prioritizing early intervention for youth, the new policy makes no mention of providing early support for families. Research suggests that investigations of parental neglect — which comprise a significant proportion of reports for investigation — are often more indicative of structural issues, like poverty. And psychologists add that there is an intergenerational continuity of child welfare system involvement.
Targeted preventive supports for families could address structural issues and prevent youth from being in foster care. It would also support the ministry’s goals of family reunification and minimizing child removals. Not including familial supports is a missed opportunity.
Building supportive connections
Both the previous and new policies emphasize the importance of developing youths’ social networks, including connections to caring adults and the community. While no age was specified previously, network building is now supposed to begin as early as age 13.
Research emphasizes interdependence over independence. Independence is a false construct, as everyone depends on others through their lives. Youth in care need continuous support to achieve interdependence.
Ongoing social support is critically important, however, it is unclear how the new policy will improve where its predecessor fell short.
Community organizations that have developed family finding programs that emphasize permanency and natural relationships make clear that this work is highly specialized. Helping youth to find meaningful, long-term and natural supports takes time and constant support to build and maintain these relationships.
It is likely this work will fall to child protection workers who are already overladen with high caseloads. It is difficult to see how they can meaningfully or effectively add this to their existing workload.
It is also important to question the appropriateness of tasking child protection workers with this responsibility when they are often involved in breaking familial bonds, which can both create irreparable harm to the family unit and limit workers’ efficacy when it comes to helping young people develop social networks.
Importantly, the policy requiring youth to leave their care placements at 18 remains in place. Many youth experience a loss of their social supports when they age out of care. Around 58 per cent of these youth experience homelessness. It is important to distinguish between being in care (living in foster care or group homes) and simply receiving transition supports without having stable, secure housing and a social network.
Ready, set, go
The new policy also includes the Ready, Set, Go Program which begins targeted transition planning when youth turn 16. The program will help child protection workers to assess with youth their readiness to leave care across nine indicators. Assessment will continue at six month intervals following their 18th birthday.
The program prioritizes youth voices, remains responsive to youths’ needs and connects them with services they will need in the long-run. However, the program does not connect readiness to leave care with being housed. It is difficult to imagine how young people will be able to meet their transition goals without a stable home.
Ultimately, the policy remains silent on what will happen if youth are not ready to leave care. Will youth receive support beyond age 23 if needed? Will anyone monitor their progress after they turn 23?
But really, should anyone be ready to be independent, isolated and alone?
Aspects of the new policy require more refinement and explanation. But as a whole, the spirit of the policy is promising. There is a feeling of hope for the future. The provincial government must now invest in these programs to make good on their promise to deliver for young Ontarians.
This article was co-authored by Heather O’Keefe, Executive Director of StepStones for Youth, which supports youth in and leaving the child welfare system in Ontario. Before founding StepStones, Heather worked as a child protection worker.