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Young people who aged out of government care in British Columbia died at a rate five times higher than the general youth population, a review of 200 deaths over a six-year period has concluded.

Children’s Minister Katrine Conroy said Monday the findings by the death panel review from the coroner’s service are “awful” and “heartbreaking.” She committed to bringing down the number of deaths by implementing an extended support system for youth leaving government care.

“We have to have the supports in place to ensure that we can support young people who age out of care and to make sure those care plans are in place,” she added.

Conroy said that includes hiring more social workers, engaging Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in greater services for youth preparing to lead independent lives and consulting with young people before and after they leave government care.

The review panel identified four areas of focus to reduce deaths after examining issues facing young people who leave government care for life on their own. It called for extended services based on the needs of a young person and speaking directly with youth about service plans and policy. The review made three recommendations including better support and ongoing monitoring of how effective services are for youth who are leaving care.

Panel chairman Michael Egilson said the review found high rates of suicide and drug overdoses, and a disproportionate number of deaths among Indigenous youth.

“That’s really telling, if you think out of 200 deaths, approximately 50 of these young people ended their own lives,” he said in an interview. “Almost 90 of those deaths were related to illicit drug overdoses.”

The report says 1,546 youth between the ages of 17 and 25 died from causes classified as accidental, suicide, natural, homicide or undetermined during the period of the review from Jan. 1, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2016. Of those deaths, 200 or 13 per cent were among people who had been in some form of government care.

“We certainly can’t draw direct causative links, but we do know that people who have more challenging lives certainly have worse health outcomes and poorer outcomes in general,” Egilson said.

Many young people leaving government care show resilience and strength, but they face more challenges than many of their peers, said Egilson, adding they usually lack a family support network, have little or no money, often have not completed school and are victims of abuse, violence and neglect.

The report says about 4,316 children and youth are discharged from care in B.C. each year. Of those, 780 end government care at age 19. Youth in B.C. are considered adults at 19 and most leave government care.

“They leave their social worker, their youth worker, their foster family or other support persons,” the report says. “For many youth, there is no longer a case manager overseeing their services. They lose access to financial, education, and social supports provided through the child welfare system.”

The Ministry for Children and Family Development provides extended support to some young people aged 19 to 26 who qualify for further supports, provided they are in registered education, skills or life programs, stated the report.

Egilson said the successful transition to adulthood for young people goes beyond the Ministry for Children and Family Development and must include Indigenous partners and the ministries of Education, Advanced Education and Health.

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