Ontario changing child welfare system to stop teens from aging out of care unprepared

Unlike most teenagers, Abdoulaye Diakhaby was petrified to turn 18. He had spent the previous four years in the child welfare system living first in a foster home, then a group home. But at 18, he was forced to be on his own.

Diakhaby, who is now 21, says he didn’t feel ready; he was still perfecting his English, he didn’t know how to cook and needed help with homework.

“I was thinking, ‘How am I going to be able to do my groceries? How to cook? How to go to school? How to pay my rent? How to get a job?'” he told CBC Toronto.

Days after moving into his own place, Diakhaby returned to the group home for a couple of nights to sleep. He was lonely and isolated.

Diakhaby says if he could, he’d still be living there, instead of having to make the transition away.

“Everything was tough for me,” he said.        

Diakhaby says prior to leaving care at 18, he worried about how he’d buy groceries, cook, get to school, pay rent and find a job. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

        

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the province placed a moratorium on youth aging out of care and has extended it to Sept. 30, 2022.

CBC News has learned the Ontario government will use the time to redesign how young people leave the system by doing away with the current age cutoff. Instead, provincial officials say they plan to ensure youths feel confident and prepared.

According to the province, just under 12,000 children and youth are in the child welfare system. About half of youths who experience homelessness in Ontario were involved in that system, more than half drop out of high school and 57 per cent rely on social assistance, according to a 2017 report by the now-closed Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth.  

Jill Dunlop, the associate minister of children and women’s issues, says the government wants children to meet key milestones before they leave care.

“We’re building a model that’s going to work for them,” Dunlop said in an interview. “Young people take different paths, but we want to ensure that the supports are there.”

Under the current system, some young people who leave care are eligible for financial assistance until age 21 and other supports until 24. Still, advocates who have been calling for a readiness-based model say those supports haven’t been close to enough. 

“The system itself was traumatizing and it retraumatized them,” said Irwin Elwin, Ontario’s former — and only — child and youth advocate.

“When they left the system, they felt dumped out and as one young person said, ‘shoved off the edge of a cliff, alone, with nothing and expected to do well.'”

The Ford government cut Elwin’s position and closed the office in 2018 and moved his responsibilities to the Ombudsman’s office.

What the new system will look like and how it will work is still being determined. The ministry says it’s working with former children in care, advocates and others to design the program.

More than 2,500 young people expected to age out by 2022, will be protected by the moratorium, according to Dunlop. 

New system must give youth a voice, advocates say 

When Cheyanne Ratnam aged out of care at 18, she took a blanket with her that symbolized a piece of family she knew she was losing.

She survived childhood sexual abuse and other trauma before entering the child welfare system and says although it was the “lowest low” she was relieved to finally have a safe place to sleep.

“I was just so happy to be away from abuse and not really having stability,” she said.

Ratnam is now the co-founder and president of Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition, which is partnering with the ministry to help develop the new model.

She calls it an “ethical system reset” and says the decision on when a youth leaves should include input from designated support people, but adds that ultimately the people in care should decide when it’s time to be on their own.

Cheyanne Ratnam was in the child welfare system and is now the co-founder and president of Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition, which is partnering with the government to help develop the new model. (Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada )

“It should be in a way where young people are supported to make those decisions and not have decisions made for them so they can take ownership of their lives,” she said.

She also says the new model shouldn’t include any sort of age cutoff and young people should be able to return to care if they choose to after leaving.

“When you’re alone in the community, a lot of trauma gets relived,” she said.  

Ratnam says the child welfare system funnels young people into homelessness, mental health issues and the justice system and that the new model should help avoid that and set young people up for success.

Conner Lowes, the president and Ontario director of Youth in Care, co-authored a letter to the province calling for a new system to be designed. (Honour Stahl)

Ratnam and the president and Ontario director of Youth in Care Canada Conner Lowes co-authored a letter in June to the ministry calling for a new system to be designed.

Lowes is also working with the province on the new model and says it’s imperative it listen to those who experienced the current system.  

“It sets the precedent for that to be the standard that the people [the system] is being designed for should be helping to create it,” he said.

“Because how else can we know what a system should look like if you’re not asking the people that you’re making the system for?”

Support networks vital

Shomari Mabayeke was placed in five different foster homes in five years.

“It’s kind of hard to trust people,” he told CBC Toronto. “I’d move again and then it was kind of numbing after that because then I didn’t make any new friends.”

Mabayeke first entered the system at 13 and says some homes were better than others. He aged out five years ago.

“My process of coming out of care was more like, ‘I just want to be gone. I don’t care. Like, this is the worst thing ever,'” he said.

Mabayeke says while he felt ready to be on his own at the time, he realizes now he wasn’t taught certain skills, such as cooking or financial planning. 

Shomari Mabayeke looks through a basket of groceries delivered to him by StepsStones for Youth, a non-profit that helps young people transition out of the child welfare system. (Angelina King/CBC)

“They didn’t do anything to prepare us for reality,'” he said. “You don’t really get all the skills that growing up with an actual family and interacting with a loving family would give you.”

Mabayeke says he received some government assistance while transitioning out of care, but still relies on StepStones for Youth, a non-profit in Toronto.

“I feel like there would have been a really disastrous, chaotic moment if I didn’t … use resources,” he said.

StepsStones helps youths who leave care secure housing, complete education and build support networks based on their interests. 

Heather O’Keefe, who runs StepStones for Youth, says the biggest challenge young people face when they leave the child welfare system is not having a support network. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“They deserve what other young people deserve,” executive director Heather O’Keefe said.

“They need to have people that care about them and guide them through life choices. And not only people who are paid to care for them, but people who actually genuinely care for them.”

Diakhaby also receives support from StepStones. He’s unemployed right now and says it’s been hard finding a job during the pandemic, but would like to be a plumber one day. 

He recently turned 21 and will soon lose his government financial assistance, but says he’ll continue to rely on help and guidance from StepsStones.

“They care about me,” he said.

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