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Anna Amy Ho at the Children's Aid Foundation of Canada office on Nov. 19, 2019. When she was 13, Ms. Ho's mother and grandmother were murdered and she was put in her older brother's care. She eventually left to live on her own. Today the Foundation has announced an Early Engagement Team, something that would have benefited Ms. Ho when she was on her own.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Anna Amy Ho was 13 when her mother and grandmother were killed by her mother’s abusive boyfriend, on the day of her Grade 8 graduation.

She escaped, and was placed by the child welfare system in the care of her brother, who had recently turned 18. But the arrangement was difficult for them, with her brother struggling with his own trauma and mental illness, as well as his new-found responsibility as a parent. Ms. Ho ended up moving out at 16, and finishing high school on her own.

But it didn’t need to be like that. Ms. Ho of Toronto believes that if her family had been given more resources early on, she could have stayed with her brother.

“If my brother had gotten the support and help that he needed to take care of me, maybe we still would have stayed a family unit. We would have had that chance to grow up together,” she said.

That’s the goal of a new early intervention program, launching Wednesday, called Journey to Zero. The $7.3-million joint venture between the Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada, a national charity, and the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto looks to fundamentally change the child welfare system.

Instead of taking children at risk into foster care, the goal is to keep families together by intervening early on.

“It’s turning the system on its head. It really is. It’s saying that we will no longer raise children," said Mahesh Prajapat, chief operating officer of the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.

“Why are we investigating families that need help?”

While the traditional model for child welfare is based on investigations and apprehensions and court systems, the new program seeks to reduce the number of children growing up in government care. The program will focus on four new “intervention” programs – such as in-home supports for adolescents – part of a “new toolkit” for social workers.

Data show that children and youth who grow up in foster care have poorer outcomes in academics, employment and health, as well as high levels of homelessness, criminal activity, teen pregnancies and human trafficking.

“The hope is that after 100 years of intervening in the lives of children and families at risk where the outcomes have been really not great, that we can mend our ways and provide a better way forward to strengthen families," said Valerie McMurtry, president and chief executive officer of the Children’s Aid Foundation.

The foundation has raised about $5-million from donations and family foundations for the four-year program, with the Toronto children’s aid society covering the rest. The Ontario government is also involved in a governance table, which is set to meet quarterly, with the province reviewing the outcomes.

“We are proud to support this innovative approach to strengthening families and communities,” Jill Dunlop, Ontario Associate Minister of Children and Women’s Issues, said in a prepared news release. “Ontario’s children and youth deserve the very best care and support we can provide. We need to build a system that is focused on early intervention and prevention."

Ms. Ho said her family would have benefited from more mental-health supports as well as counselling and financial services, had they been available at the time. “I was most definitely suffering in silence," she said, adding that her brother was unable to finish high school and still struggles with mental illness.

Now in her late 20s, Ms. Ho recently graduated from the University of Toronto with a master’s degree in social work, and plans on pursuing commercial real estate while remaining involved in victims’ services. She credits a strong guidance counsellor, parents of her friends and her now-fiancé for helping her through difficult times.

But she stresses that her situation is the exception, not the rule.

“I’ve been very, very blessed and very, very lucky in so many ways to be where I am in my life now and to have experienced many successes,” she said. "And unfortunately my story is most definitely not the norm.”

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