Turning 18 often presents an exciting new chapter in our lives, but this legal transition into adulthood also comes with many responsibilities. Pressures such as rent, food, utilities, healthcare, and even education can become heavy burdens during these initial adult years.

According to Alberta Human Services, there are currently over 10,000 children and youth who are receiving some sort of child intervention services. This could include living in a foster home, group home, residential home, or in kinship care, child protection or family enhancement services.

Many of us are fortunate enough to have support from family and friends, but for 18-year-olds in some form of government care the future can be much less certain.

As their 18th birthday approaches, youth in government care, through the Ministry of Human Services in Alberta, are faced with the decision to sign on for extended care with the government or become fully independent.

But are they ready to be on their own? What kind of support will they need to succeed? How long should those supports be offered for?

Provincial social services agencies across the country are grappling with these questions among others to prevent these young people from falling through the cracks.

Providing a strong voice

According to Alberta Human Services, there are currently over 10,000 children and youth who are receiving some sort of child intervention services. This could include living in a foster home, group home, residential home, or in kinship care, child protection or family enhancement services.

But when the time comes, does this demographic have enough resources to ensure they have a successful transition from child and youth services to an independent life as an adult?

Prior to 2014, the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta felt the province did not. In response to their concerns, the office filed a report to the Ministry of Human Services detailing areas of concern regarding youth aging out of care.

The 2013 report recommended thefollowing:

  • Supportive financial resources and housing options
  • Specifically trained caseworkers
  • Increased awareness of resources for transitioning youth
  • Strong adult relationships
  • Access to health or adult services as needed

Del Graff, Child and Youth Advocate of Alberta officer, currently feels that three of the five recommendations are met.

bodyGraff DelChild and Youth Advocate Del Graff will continue reviewing reports from the Ministry of Child and Family Services every six months, until all recommendations outlined by the organization have been met. Photo courtesy of the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate.“Now there’s a couple of areas that we had asked for in terms of recommendations that they haven’t, in our view, responded to adequately,” Graff says.

He would like to see additional training for caseworkers to become more informed on transitional issues, and a stronger emphasis on continued adult relationships for young people leaving care.

However, Graff is pleased with the progress the government has made: “We’re certainly in a better position than we were.”

 

Extended care in Alberta

The Support and Financial Assistance Agreement, a post-intervention service available to youth after the age of 18, was only available to youth until they turned 22.

However, in 2014 the age was raised to 24 years old and Graff says that has made a huge difference for many young adults transitioning out of child and youth services.

“The way it’s made a difference is that when you make a program larger by extending the age limits, it also makes it bigger, so that means people pay more attention to it,” Graff explains.

In the last three years, there was an 80 per cent increase in the number of agreements in the province. In addition, from April 2015 to March 2016, 114 young people who were 22 or 23 years old had this service. Without the recent rise in the eligibility age, these young adults would not have qualified for the services they might benefit from.

Another option that youth aging out of care in Alberta have is the Advancing Futures Bursary, a program aimed to help young adults with their post-secondary education. The young adults must be 18 to 24 years old when they apply.

 Video produced by YouthAlberta

In April of this year, the government gave a $723,000 increase to the bursary program.

“This increase is helpful, and it does reflect that the government is trying to support those vulnerable young people that are transitioning into adulthood through education,” Graff says.

Manitoba: Is 21 too young to leave care?

Youth being eligible to receive extended care until age 24 in Alberta is progressive compared to other provinces such as Manitoba. Currently, advocates are fighting to influence the province’s government to change the age of extended care from 21 to 25 years old.

Dylan Cohen, a 21-year-old activist who was formerly in child and youth care with the province of Manitoba, is one of the most vocal advocates trying to influence the government to increase the age of extension of care.

He is the organizer of a group called 25 not 21, dedicated to challenging the provincial government on policy regarding youth aging out of care and resources available to them.

BodyCohen DylanDylan Cohen, who was formerly in government care in Manitoba, is now a powerful voice for children and youth in Manitoba, hoping the government will change its policies on extended care. “It’s only bureaucracy that holds it down,” Cohen says. Photo by Michael Yellowking Kannon, provided by Dylan Cohen.“When I was in university and first starting out, I was 19 and I was looking around and realizing that the safety net that all my peers had, I did not have at all,” Cohen says, adding, “...that was coupled with a critical analysis of policy that was coming out of my classes in education.”

Strong and supportive adult relationships are not only important for youth aging out of care, but for anyone who is entering adulthood. In Alberta and Manitoba, it is clear this is one of the top priorities child and youth advocates are fighting to improve.

Mitch Bourbonniere, social work professor at the University of Manitoba, agrees that age 21 is too young for the extension of care to be terminated, and that they should be able to get the help they need for longer.

“The kids that are in Child and Family Services have been abused, and they have been abandoned, and they have had emotional and post trauma. So they’re naturally going to be slower to be strong and independent than regular kids and regular families,” Bourbonniere says.

bodyBourbonniere MitchMitch Bourbonniere is a therapist and social worker in Manitoba, and he says things need to change in terms of the extended care offered by the province. “I think every child should be offered at least minimum six months to a year extension…and if they want or need more, they should be able to get more…right up to 24, 25,” Bourbonniere says. Photo courtesy of Mitch Bourbonniere.

“All the more reason to be extending. Regular families extend their own children, and then we’ve got it [Child and Family Services] not extending their children, who are probably more needy.”

Similarly in Ontario, the Continued Care and Support for Youth is only offered until age 21. However, reports such as 25 is the new 21 – published in 2012 by the Ontario Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth – are putting the same pressures on government policy.

Why age 25?

The most common age suggested for extension of care seems to be until age 25. According to the Government of Alberta, the brain does not stop developing until approximately age 20 to 25. Therefore, this suggests the brain is not fully mature until our mid-twenties.

Christina Tortorelli, associate director of the Calgary Region Child and Family Services, says that this brain development does not just apply to youth in care, but there are other factors to consider when it comes to that particular demographic.

“The additional piece for youth that have been in the care with the Ministry of Human Services is that they’ve had added trauma and struggles in their life that may make it even more difficult for them, and mean that they need even more support than your typical growing and developing adolescent,” says Tortorelli.

Cohen of Manitoba’s 25 not 21 suggests a social component as well.

“Beyond just the neurological component, it’s the age that folks graduate university, it’s the age that if you had a child as a young person you can finally start feeling a little bit more stable, you might have some job training at that point,” he says.

“These are just the bare minimum that millennials need to exist right now, but for some reason youth in care are totally ignored from the demographic shift that’s happening.”

The pressures of making informed, life-altering decisions can really take a toll on a young adult. If things get too overwhelming, we grab our phone and scroll our contacts until we find that one person we call when it feels like the world is caving in around us.

This stresses the importance of having those supportive adult relationships during this time, especially for youth aging out of care given their added hardships.

Video produced by Alberta Family Wellness

In 2011, a Statistics Canada analysis concluded that 59.3 per cent of young adults aged 20 to 24 years old still lived at home; nationally, 42.3 per cent of adults from age 20 to 29 still lived at home. For some adults, there is no added pressure to leave home and fully be independent, but youth in care are forced to make that decision at 18 years old.

What’s next in Alberta?

Compared to other provinces, Alberta seems to have a strong support system for youth aging out of care, but there is still more that needs to be done.

“I would really hope that at some point we start to be able to make it so that the services fit the needs of the child or the young person, not the young person having to conform to the parameters of the service,” Graff from the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate says about going forward.

However, it is clear the Government of Alberta has made a huge effort towards improving the resources available for youth aging out of care, but there are still some areas that need more attention.

“On those two [recommendations], the one about training dedicated caseworkers, and getting support of adults for young people, their [Ministry of Human Services] updates kind of speak for themselves,” Graff says. “It would be hard to say they have accomplished the recommendations based on what they’ve told us.”

Compared to other provinces, Alberta seems to have a strong support system for youth aging out of care, but there is still more that needs to be done.

Tortorelli from Calgary Child and Family Services says the final recommendations are currently ongoing and the government is “Committed to working together to ensure the best outcomes for our youth.”

Cohen, who was formerly in government care in Manitoba, is now a powerful voice for children and youth in Manitoba, hoping the government will change its policies on extended care. “It’s only bureaucracy that holds it down,” Cohen says.

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The editor responsible for this piece is Ingrid Mir and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.