Almost 15, 000 of Ontario’s 3.1 million children are in the care of Children’s Aid Societies.i This means that on any given day, 1 out of every 182 children in Ontario is in care.ii Of the 15,000 children in care, approximately 5,800 children and youth are permanent wards of the Crown and CASs have full guardianship responsibilities.iii Research indicates that children and youth in care experience poorer outcomes compared to the general Canadian child and youth population across a range of domains including educational attainment, employment, and health.
In Canada today, approximately 2,291 young people “age out” of the child welfare system every year (Conference Board of Canada 2014). The majority of these youth leave their foster and group homes when they turn 18 or 19, depending on the province; by the time they turn 21, the limited government funding they have been receiving largely ceases, as does the emotional support they received from staff and former care providers, and they must find the means and resources to establish a life of independence. By and large, youth in care face difficult circumstances as they transition into adulthood. At the age of 18, these youth must assume responsibility for their own health and well-being, relationships, employment, housing, education, and building connections within their communities. Lacking the financial and moral support that most Canadian children take for granted, they struggle to cope with these challenges of adult life, including the challenge of transitioning to adult support systems, such as health and mental health, criminal justice, and social services systems. Many of these youth may lack the knowledge and skills to navigate these service systems. As a result, chronic unemployment, unplanned parenthood, homelessness, and incarceration are just some of the problems they encounter, with significant social and economic costs as a result.iv
Clearly the circumstances and life chances for these young people are significantly poorer and the challenges and hardships considerably greater than for other young people in the general population:
- 40% of former youth in care have been homeless or “couch surfed” at some point since leaving care (25 Is The New 21, 2012 - Report from the Provincial Advocate for Children & Youth)
- Only 30% of kids involved with the care system graduate high school compared to 88% of the general population. In Ontario, only 44% of youth in and from care graduate from high school compared to the 81% high school graduation rate for all Ontario Students(25 Is The New 21, 2012, and The Conference Board of Canada)
- Numerous reports dating back to the mid-1980s show that youth leaving care are over-represented in the youth justice, mental health, and shelter systems (OACAS, Annual Report, 2009)
- According to Youth in Care Canada (www.youthincare.ca), one youth in fifty has been involved in the child protective system, with a disproportionate number being Aboriginal. There are nearly 100,000 children and youth in care in Canada. Although only 2 per cent of Ontario's population is Aboriginal, Aboriginal children and youth make up 22 per cent of Ontario's Crown wards. (Statistics collected in My REAL Life Book: Report from the Youth Leaving Care Hearings. Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth May 2012, p 33.)
- Youth leaving care tend to have more mental health problems than their peers. Over 46% of Crown Wards have been prescribed drugs for psychiatric conditions. When they age out of the system, they often lose their prescription drug coverage. The ability to control major mental illness is drastically diminished without access to prescribed medication. A random sample of permanent Wards in Ontario showed that almost one third of youth still in care had a mental disorder. In that group, 49% also had another type of disability. In addition, youth leaving care have shown higher levels of alcohol and drug use.v
Research and practice wisdom validates the additional risk for these youth and suggests the need for multi-sectorial collaboration in addressing these often complex and numerous risks.
The Social and Economic Costs
In April 2014, the Conference Board of Canada released the findings of a new study analyzing the social and economic costs of youth leaving care who go unsupported versus the social and economic benefits of investing in their success and well-being.
- Every child aging out of care will earn approximately $326,000 less income over his or her lifespan than the average Canadian.
- For one cohort of 2,291 youth aging out of care in a year, this represents a 10-year loss of $7.5 billion in earning potential.
- Every child leaving care will cost all levels of the Canadian government more than $126,000 over his/her lifetime in the form of higher social assistance payments and lower tax revenues.
- If all levels of Canadian government were to invest a total of $126,000 in each young person leaving care, approximately $289 million would be saved over the lifetime of just one cohort of 2,291 kids and the government would still receive a positive return on investment.
- It is estimated that ongoing long-term investment in education and mental health for youth leaving care will provide permanent gains for Canada’s GDP of up to 0.15%.
The Need is Very Real!
The need for a wide-reaching, high-impact mentorship program for youth leaving care has long been recognized by the Canadian child welfare sector as a crucial gap in the delivery of services to this deeply vulnerable population. The Blueprint for Fundamental Change to Ontario’s Child Welfare System highlighted the importance of supportive, long-lasting relationships and it was specifically recommended that children and youth in care be provided with the opportunity “to be matched with peer-mentors who have been in care or adult mentors from the community with formalized mentoring organizations that meet their individual needs.” This call has been supported in part by preliminary research findings such as DuBois, Holloway, Valentine and Cooper’s 2002 meta-analysis of mentoring programs, which found that mentoring may provide the most benefit to at risk youth. This resource will make tremendous strides toward filling this gap by ultimately ensuring that all young people receiving child protection services can access the support of a consistent, caring mentor.
Children in care often experience trauma resulting in removal from home which compromises their ability to develop healthy relationships. Healthy relationships – and the sense of safety, trust, belonging and security they foster – form the foundation of a young person’s capacity to develop self-esteem. The often dysfunctional coping mechanisms young people employ to manage trauma, loss and fear, contributes to a cycle of mislabelling (e.g. Lazy, bad, full of attitude, etc.), continued disruption and, too often, a myriad of negative outcomes.
Interrupting that cycle is critical. Replacing instability and helplessness, which fuels the maladaptive coping mechanisms, with a stable, patient relationship with a well-prepared, persistent and consistent mentor, is one way to disrupt the cycle. Feeding a basic sense of belonging can lead to the strengthening of a healthy self-esteem and a new self-identity as a resilient, important and contributing community member.
A recent literature review by the Child Welfare Institute found consistent agreement among child welfare experts that “a permanent connection with at least one committed adult who provides a safe, stable, and secure relationship… would foster improved success for youth transitioning from care” (Literature Review: Best Practices in Transitioning Youth Out of Care, Child Welfare Institute 2014).
But most importantly of all, the need for supportive mentors has been voiced repeatedly by the youth themselves:
“I feel that it would be a big asset if there was a mentor or a Big Brother program in the system. This would let kids see that life is hard and things don’t always go your way but they can make their lives good even if their past was so bad.”
– Former youth in care, speaking at the 2012 Youth Leaving Care Hearings at Queen’s Park, Toronto
“I very much felt alone and it would have been nice to have somebody, I guess, there to be able to say, we kind of get this and it’s okay that you’re feeling this way.”
– Katelynn, 21, former youth in care
The Impact is Very Real!
A pro-bono study conducted by Boston Consulting Group for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada in 2013 revealed that mentorship services for vulnerable young people have a profound impact on the trajectory of their lives. Compared to their non-mentored peers, youth who receive mentoring are:
- 17% more likely to be gainfully employed and earn 13% more on average, leading to an earnings increase of approximately $315,000 over their lifetime (similar to the results of the Conference Board of Canada study).
- 50% more likely to volunteer and 13% more likely to give to charity.
- 60% more likely to report feeling consistently happy and 45% more likely to report feeling consistently confident.
- 50% more likely to have a strong social network.
It is critical that young people in receipt of child protection services are able to form positive relationships with those who can provide the guidance and support they so desperately require as they navigate the difficult path to a more stable future. Specially trained mentors have the ability to change a youth’s outlook from one of despair to one of optimism and opportunity.
Ibid, p. 4. 16,825 children were living in care in 2010. ii
Bay Consulting Group, A Description of the Child Welfare System Landscape in Ontario, October, 2010, p. 24. iii
Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, Child Welfare Report 2009/10, p.6. iv
Conference Board of Canada 2014 p.1 v
My REAL Life Book: Report from the Youth Leaving Care Hearings. Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth May 2012, p 24.)