“How do you get by?” the Vancouver Island MLA wanted to know. Four young women were crowding around a small, wooden table in Sonia Furstenau’s basement office in the B.C. Legislature. Each had been cut off from their social worker, food stamps and rent supports the day they turned 19, and aged out of B.C.’s foster-care system.
“I go days without eating,” a 19-year-old told Ms. Furstenau. Another explained that she sleeps at a Vancouver homeless shelter. “Two months after turning 19, I had to check myself into a psych ward for attempting suicide,” another said. “My plan,” she added, “is to try not to die.”
The women were among 45 young British Columbians − all recent products of B.C.’s care system − who travelled to the legislature in Victoria this fall to ask the province to support foster youth beyond the age of 19.
Legislators are not unaware of the problem. The BC Coroners Service reported last spring that young people exiting care in the province are dying at five times the rate of their peers. The coroners’ death-review panel was sparked by a series of high-profile deaths of young British Columbians leaving provincial care. Paige Gauchier, 19, fatally overdosed in a Downtown Eastside bathroom shortly after she left the system in 2013. Carly Fraser jumped to her death just 20 hours after turning 19 in 2014. Alex Gervais died the same way just before turning 19 in 2015. Santanna Scott-Huntinghawk, 19, overdosed in 2016 while living in a tent in Surrey, just months after aging out of care. In all, the coroners service examined 200 deaths of young people transitioning from government care between 2011 and 2016. Two-thirds were accidents; 24 per cent were suicides.
B.C.’s NDP minority government, supported by the Greens, came to power last year pledging significant investments to the province’s foster-care system. So far, the government has increased supports to former foster youth enrolled in postsecondary education and introduced a program waiving the university tuition fees of former youth in care. But the supports offered in B.C. fall short of other provinces.
Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have, for years, financially supported former foster youth to the age of 21 with monthly living allowances. In 2014, Alberta extended supports to foster youth to the age of 24 from 22. The Alberta government also provides financial, emotional and social supports to youth in care who go on to postsecondary studies, or undertake training in trades and other fields. This includes a monthly allowance of $1128 (with additional financial supports for students with children) and tuition (up to $40,000 per year).
“We’re vulnerable,” Kian Fernandez, who was raised in Prince George, told Ms. Furstenau. “We’re scared. We were tiny humans forced to grow up far too young. Most of us have no parents. We need adults we can rely on and trust.”
The 19-year-old speaks with grace and confidence in front of a crowd. She says she doesn’t drink and has never taken an illegal drug. She has two part-time jobs in retail, tidy, short brown hair and a sharp style. People often assume the poised teen has everything under control. She says she rarely feels that way. On this October day, a ticking clock is counting down the days until she loses the provincial supports she relies on. She is terrified.
During the 90-minute ferry ride to Victoria from Tsawwassen, the young advocates swapped dried papaya, Rice Krispies squares and advice: “These [legislators] are upper-class, educated people,” said a young man with black fingernails and a lonely disposition. “Be careful of the words you use.”
“Just use plain, simple English they can understand,” 24-year-old Helen Proskow chimed in. In many, however, the prospect of trying to change the minds of some of B.C.’s most powerful people triggered dread. One young woman had a panic attack, her breath coming in gulps, sweat running down her round, frightened face.
Arriving at the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal on Vancouver Island, the group boarded a blue bus decorated with flowers and sea life, and rented at a steep discount from a community-action coalition. Before getting off outside B.C.’s neo-Baroque legislature overlooking Victoria’s Inner Harbour, Ms. Fernandez suddenly stood in the aisle. “I never thought I’d end up in care,” she told the group, shouting to be heard. “I’m sorry we have to do this. No matter what your race, your sexuality, your gender, today we are family. Today, we stand together to make change for future generations of youth in care − so they don’t have to struggle the way we do.”
“Can I get an Amen?” Dylan Cohen shouted from the front of the bus, to a chorus of hosannas. The 23-year-old youth organizer with the advocacy group First Call led the unique lobbying effort in Victoria. Mr. Cohen, himself a former foster kid, was raised in Manitoba where he first tested the approach: putting MLAs face to face with the foster youth their government is responsible for parenting, and forcing them to confront what is seen as the severe outcomes of flawed policies.
Some of their stories are horrific. At the B.C. Legislature, when an MLA began fiddling with his phone, a young woman raised in care in the Okanagan forced him to look up: “I have to have sex to eat,” said the woman, who was granted anonymity by The Globe and Mail because she feared that her job prospects might be hindered if she was identified. “I live with mice, black moss, maggots and ants. We’re here to tell you: this isn’t working. What parent kicks their child out at 19, and says: ‘Don’t come back?’ To be frank, young lives are at stake.”
Indeed, the province records a surge in self-harm incidents, suicide attempts and suicides among foster youth approaching their 19th birthdays, said Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.’s youth advocate. They are “terrified.”
For those who qualify, a monthly stipend is available to former foster youth enrolled in postsecondary education, or in drug or alcohol treatment through the Agreements with a Young Adult (AYA) program. In the last budget, the B.C. government increased the AYA monthly stipend by $250 a month to $1,250. And waiving tuition fees for former youth in care helped 687 of them attend university last year, up from 335 a year earlier. But, the NDP had in its 2017 campaign pledged to “offer supports to all youth aging out of care who need it, not just a few.”
That, precisely, is the crux of the problem, Mr. Cohen said. “The average 19-year-old leaves care with no skills, no education and no one to look out for them. There is nothing for that person. You don’t build policy around unique exceptions: The foster kid who turns 19, ready to jump in to university.”
Last year, just 13 per cent of former foster youth were able to access AYA supports, according to data from B.C.’s Ministry of Child and Family Development. The majority − more than 53 per cent − ended up on either income or disability assistance within six months of leaving care. Those are the youth most at risk of harm, according to the recent coroners’ report. Just one of the 200 young adults who died transitioning from care in the past five years was receiving AYA supports.
“We have made changes,” said Katrine Conroy, B.C.'s Minister of Children and Family Development. “We are meeting some needs. But there are still things we need to do better,” she said in an interview, but didn’t elaborate on what other improvements the government is considering.
Referring to her own four children, she acknowledged that “most people” are not ready to fend for themselves at 19: “I can’t imagine any parent saying to their kids at 19, ‘See ya later; have a good life.’ ”
One of the biggest problems with the current system is how few young people are exiting provincial care ready for postsecondary education. There are myriad, interlacing reasons that only 47 per cent of them are graduating high school, said Dr. Charlesworth: Their childhoods were often chaotic and traumatic. Their schooling was interrupted as they shuffled from home to home. Between 30 and 80 per cent of children enter foster care with at least one physical health problem; with fully one-third of children entering foster care with a chronic health condition, and up to 80 per cent having a signiﬁcant mental-health need, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
For years, Dr. Charlesworth’s office has been calling on the province to extend supports to 24. She notes that her counterparts in other provinces are advocating for the same thing, and pointed to a recent study that found it would cost less to support B.C. youth to 24 than the $268-million the province currently spends on adverse outcomes for the 1,000 youth aging out of the system every year. These include higher health-care costs, homelessness, lost tax revenue because of unemployment and underemployment, and a greater likelihood of involvement in crime, according to the study’s lead investigator, Simon Fraser University economist Marvin Shaffer. By contrast, his estimates show it would cost the B.C. government $57-million to extend supports to 24.
“Developmentally and emotionally, and considering the impact of trauma and the way the brain develops, we know we need to stay connected to kids until they’re 24,” she said.
Rainbow Dykeman ended up on the street after leaving care five years ago. She had nowhere else to go. Over the course of her short life, the city has been reborn, a renewal fuelled by a mountain of foreign cash. It has made Vancouver one of the most expensive places in the world to live, with more than 50 per cent of city residents now living paycheque to paycheque, according to a recent survey by the Canadian Payroll Association. This year, the number of homeless people in the city hit the highest figure since data began being collected a decade-and-a half ago.
Ms. Dykeman, who says she has been sober for six years, works four shifts a week at a youth centre and has a temporary job selling Christmas trees for a local charity; but it’s not enough to cover rent. Recently, she began sleeping at a winter shelter built in the shadow of Vancouver House, a tower still under construction where two condos recently listed for $11-million and $15-million, respectively.
In the shelter, everything Ms. Dykeman owns has been stolen in turn: her shoes, socks, toothbrush, even her underwear. At night, she hides her cellphone in a tiny black purse she wraps around her neck then stuffs between the mattress and headboard. “Some days, it feels like every single step I take I’m fighting people from trying to touch me, steal from me, push drugs on me, hurt me,” she said. She would prefer sleeping in a tent. “But out there,” she said, “no one can hear you scream.”
She recently turned 23, but the street has already taken a toll. She has arthritis in her knees, her wrists, her neck and a wet, rattling cough she can’t kick. Bedbug bites scar both arms. Hundreds of thin white cicatrices line her legs. She began cutting a few years ago. Suicide, drugs and jail have stolen many of her friends. Some days, she aches with loneliness. As rents in Vancouver continue to climb, she finds herself stuck in a shelter system with few exits. “The truth is," she said, “I think about suicide all the time.”
Ms. Dykeman travelled to Victoria to tell the government that age 19 is too young to be cast out. Ms. Fernandez, for her part, said she was standing up for the vulnerable child she once was.
For now, Ms. Fernandez lives in a 200-square-foot flat in a Downtown Eastside rooming house with a skinny cat named Maevis and a single window overlooking a dingy wall. She is a delicate 19-year-old with wide, hazel eyes whose proud bearing magnifies her tiny, 98-pound frame. Ms. Fernandez has had her AYA supports extended until February. She is now receiving $1,250 a month. Then, she will be cut off.
“I’m terrified of not being able to eat again, of being broke again, of feeling suicidal again,” said Ms. Fernandez, who was homeless for six months after being forced from her family’s home when she was 16. “You start to really believe that you are useless, that you are worthless.”
By the time the group neared home, 14 hours after the day began, her voice had grown hoarse. The laughter and excited chatter had faded. The group, bone weary, sat slumped in the bus’s vinyl seats. It was dark and so quiet you could hear a light rain pattering on the sheet-metal roof. A worn-out teen girl began to cry. “I’m exhausted,” said Ms. Fernandez, leaning back in her seat. “But I feel empowered − like I don’t have to let the system define who I become.”