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Stephanie Turning-Robe has been in the child welfare system since she was 16 years old.

Throughout her childhood, she felt abandoned by her family. As a result, Turning-Robe says she believed seeking help from Alberta’s Child Intervention Services could be the only path toward a better life.

“I can live on my own, I’m sure I can figure it out, but I just need some financial assistance,” Turning-Robe often thought to herself as a teenager. “There’s got to be some kind of program out there that can help me.”

Now, at age  23, Turning-Robe receives Support and Financial Assistance Agreements (SFAA) — which help youth who have been in government care transition into adulthood — from the Alberta government.

“I know that if I didn’t have financial assistance, I wouldn’t have been able to move out at the age of 18.”

She is now a fully independent university student. 

“I finally feel like my life has been the most stable it ever has been,” says Turning-Robe. 

“If I didn’t have that assistance, I wouldn’t be as grown up as I am today.”

However, not everyone who has been a part of Alberta’s child welfare system has been as lucky. Over the past nine years, there has been a dramatic increase in the deaths of young adults who have aged out of care, hitting a peak in the most recent fiscal year.

Experts and government critics interviewed by the Calgary Journal identified a number of possible explanations for those deaths. Among them are insufficient support for those individuals, the opioid crisis, and the threat of further service reductions by the Alberta government — which has prompted advocates and those in the system to demand the province increase services for emerging adults.

Getting into the system

“The usual reasons for entering care involve abuse and/or neglect,” says Jane Kovarikova, founder of the Child Welfare Political Action Committee Canada.

According to Alberta’s Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act, child intervention services are seen as a “last resort” for children and young people whose basic needs are not being met at home. 

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The Ministry of Children’s Services states that this occurs when the care and support they receive at home is conducive with severe abuse and neglect. It adds that in matters of child protection, the best interests of the child must be taken into consideration.

However, those children are often overwhelmingly Indigenous — something that’s been a point of criticism.

As outlined in a Dec. 2020 quarterly report released by the ministry, only roughly 10 per cent of the children in Alberta are Indigenous, yet they make up 71 per cent of the child welfare system.

SFAAs, which provide financial assistance as well as other fundamental support, such as meetings with caseworkers and educational sessions, are one of the transitional services offered to young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 years old. 

The province becomes their parent

The SFAA program is designed to help emerging adults achieve independence. 

As of Dec. 2020, the Ministry of Children’s Services reported that 2,154 young adults had an active SFAA. 

Christina Tortorelli, an assistant professor of child studies and social work at Mount Royal University, says by reaching out to young people, the formal support that is in place will benefit these youth, even after they turn 18. 

“For some young people who come into the foster care system, there is no forever place for them in that world,” says Tortorelli. “They’re lost, and the government makes a commitment to be their parent.” 

Though the province is mandated to support these youths, the child welfare system has seen an exponential increase in the deaths of youth aging out of care.

Adult services are not set up for young people who are struggling”

CHRISTINA TORTORELLI

The Ministry of Children’s Services reported in the 2011-12 fiscal year, only one young adult receiving SFAAs died. 

But deaths of youths receiving SFAAs have increased by 1,300 per cent over the past nine years — peaking at 14 in just nine months, between Apr. 1, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020.

According to Tortorelli and Mount Royal University social work professor Peter Choate, part of the problem is the resources offered to these youth don’t cater to their vulnerable demographic. 

“Adult services are not set up for young people who are struggling. They’re not set up for adults, period, but they’re really not set up for young people who come from being in care and have grown up in the government system,” says Tortorelli.

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Choate adds these emerging adults lack the same safety net as young people who haven’t grown up in foster care.

“The difference is most kids living with family at age 18 can anticipate that family will continue to support them,” he says, adding, by comparison, children aging out of care don’t have that.

“So, their family ends at 18.”

Del Graff, Ablerta’s Child and Youth Advocate, agrees.

“We know those added resources, those added supports, those added relationships, make a difference when young people struggle, and they’re going to struggle during that transitional time in their lives.”

Contributing factors

The opioid crisis also cannot be ignored as a contributing factor to the increasing number of deaths as young adults age out of care.

“The impact of opioids on young adults has been horrendous,” says Graff. “We have a very large and significant number of young people who have died as a result of opioid poisoning.”

In 2018, Alberta had 806 opioid poisoning-related deaths — a record at the time. That number fell to 627 in 2019, only to climb to a new high the next year. 

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From January to November 2020, 997 Albertans had died of unintentional opioid poisoning.

During the first half of 2020 alone, the province saw 449 deaths, which averages to roughly 2.5 deaths each day. 

Tortorelli says we need to factor the opioid crisis into the overall increase in deaths of those aging out of care.

Other experts speculate the recent increase in the number of deaths of youth aging out of care could be caused by the abrupt changes to the SFAA program by the Albertan government.

In Oct. 2019, the United Conservative Party government announced they were lowering the maximum age eligibility for the SFAA program from 24 to 22 years old. At that time, roughly 500 young people between the ages of 18 and 24 would have been affected.

“Let’s be clear, the decision to cut the eligibility age from 24 to 22 was a financial decision. It would save the ministry $14.5 million a year, and that’s why they did it.”

Rakhi Pancholi

Avnish Nanda, a lawyer and advocate for young adults in the SFAA program, says the government didn’t seem to care about ensuring they received the support needed to live safe and healthy lives.

Nanda’s client, identified as A.C. to protect her identity, says her SFAA provides her with roughly $1,990 per month. This covers expenses such as rent, as well as childcare, while she pursues her education.

In March 2020, an injunction was granted to prevent those changes to the SFAA program until Nanda and his client could challenge them. But in January 2021 that decision was overturned by the Alberta Court of Appeal, which ruled in favour of the Alberta government.

“Just when they’ve had hope of a better future, this government’s just taking it away,” says Nanda.

Shortly following the appeal, the Minister of Children’s Services stated on Twitter that youth ages 22-23 would receive SFAA benefits “until further notice.”

Rakhi Pancholi, the NDP’s children’s services critic, says the government’s decision is based on saving money.

“Let’s be clear, the decision to cut the eligibility age from 24 to 22 was a financial decision. It would save the ministry $14.5 million a year, and that’s why they did it.”

She says the causes of deaths of young adults who age out of care “cannot be divorced from the uncertainty created by the changes to the program that were announced by the government.”

“That was a very traumatic announcement in the sense that there was very little warning,” says Pancholi.

Child advocate Graff says he doesn’t know if those cuts contributed to the deaths of children aging out of care.

“What I do know is that [decision] shocked young people. It shocked people who provide services to young people.”

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The pandemic has only made this situation more volatile. 

“We have to also look at those rising numbers of young people in this age group who have died in the context of the pandemic,” says Pancholi. “[These] young people have been hit quite hard, and, unfortunately, the number of deaths of young people in this age group are evidence of that.”

Those interviewed by the Calgary Journal believe the deaths have identified a need for more government support for young adults who age out of care, and say increased funding is a solution. 

“We all need to be anchored to something,” says Tortorelli. “These kids need more than one anchor, so that if you take an anchor away, there’s [at least] still some anchors left.”

Pancholi says more and better funded social programs will not only prevent young adults from dying, but also keep children out of Alberta’s welfare system in the first place.

Nanda emphasizes that death prevention means understanding these lives matter.

“We need to be very targeted and specific and provide the necessary encompassing supports to ensure that they can continue to live safely, sustainably, and into the long term.” 

Pancholi, however, says the government does not appear committed to doing that.

“They seem to be doing the bare minimum.”

The current Minister of Children’s Services, Rebecca Schulz, declined an interview request from the Calgary Journal. The government did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.