When our children turn 19 it’s time for a party with cake and candles and gifts… isn’t it? Do parents change the locks, stop answering phone calls, cancel dinners, and stop being around? Of course we don’t, but that is the situation faced by a youth in the care of government in British Columbia. Upon their 19th birthday, these young people’s gift is to get cut off from housing, services, caregivers and the people in their lives: “That’s it, kid! You’re on your own.”
In 2013, there were an estimated 8,200 children and youth in government care in BC and each year, about 700 of them “age out” of care and lose the benefits and supports they have been afforded until that day. Is it any surprise then that 40% of homeless youth have been in foster care at some point in their lives? Or that only 21% of children in care graduate from high school (versus 78% of the general youth population)?
Most parents do a great job just being there for their kids, helping them find happiness and supporting them in finding success. Indeed, 43% of people aged 19 to 28 live at home with parents. That security is a boon for them, but young people that come from foster care do not have it. Unfortunately, as a society, we have not figured out how to help the kids whose family connections have been fractured for much of their childhood.
Growing up is enough of a challenge, but doing so with the additional stress of doing so in government care makes the process even more difficult. Once they enter the system, many face additional stressors.
According to the McCreary Centre survey, some kids entering government care have often experienced trauma and loss. For example, some 36% of youth in care had been physically abused; 25% had been sexually abused; 30% had a friend who had attempted suicide, and 22% had a family member who had done so. And roughly 60% of youth in care have moved homes at least once in the previous year.
The 2013 Adolescent Health Survey was completed by over 1,000 youth who had been in government care and it helps us understand the issues and challenges they face. One key is the importance of ongoing support and stability to better health outcomes.
Youth who feel safe at school and had good relationships with staff and peers reported better health and a greater likelihood of planning to go on to post-secondary education. But the instability of moving homes experienced by youth in care reduces their sense of connection to school.
Another key finding is that youth are reaching out for help and when that experience is a positive one, it appears to have benefits. An example is that the risk of youth attempting suicide dropped by more than half if they found a social worker they approached to be helpful versus an unhelpful experience.
A healthy transition into adulthood is built on good relationships with peers, family and community. Independence and self-confidence grow best when we know there is someone out there if we need them. So it seems heartless and unthinking to, in one day, force a young person from the dependence and relative security they have known into an unprepared state of independence.
All of us require support and encouragement to become fully independent young adults.
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet, Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola