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For foster kids to succeed, they need more than just care

Jane Kovarikova is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Western Ontario and the founder and president of the Child Welfare PAC.

I thought that I had put foster care in the rear-view mirror when I struck out on my own at age 16. Like typical foster youths, I exited care, dropped out of high school and entered many years of struggle and deep loneliness, especially around the holidays.

From overcoming poverty and a traumatic and immensely stressful childhood, to eventually muddling my way into postsecondary school, the path forward was mired with challenges. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common experience for foster youth in Canada.

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There have been small changes in child protection since I aged out of the system, but the outcomes have remained identical. Canadian youth who leave care are faced with dark futures that often include low academic achievement, unemployment or underemployment, homelessness and housing insecurity, encounters with the criminal justice system, early parenthood, poor physical and mental health and loneliness.

Perhaps the most shocking piece of the foster-care puzzle is that these outcomes have remained the same across 40 years of academic studies in several countries.

It may be tempting to blame these outcomes on the children, but when the system parents 17,000 individuals in Ontario (and about 70,000 nationwide), and channels them on the same bleak life trajectory, the issue is systemic.

Our system has stagnated in the "activity trap" by focusing on activities and outputs rather than outcomes or impact measurement on youth who have gone through the protection system. In Ontario, and most Canadian jurisdictions, youth outcomes after care have never been tracked. If you don't check what happens after care, how can you know if anything you did before worked? We don't allow a drug for a headache to hit the market before rigorous clinical trials measure its impact, but we trust the lives of some of the most vulnerable children in our country to a system with absolutely no impact measurements.

There is no doubt that our government wants to ensure children have bright futures – Ontario alone spends $1.5-billion (yes, billion) on child protection. But it can't know for sure if its programs and policies have been effective. By not measuring youth outcomes after care, the system is unable to progressively evolve to ensure its children grow into thriving adults. It is no wonder academic studies have shown the same bleak life outcomes for youth year after year.

That's why I founded the not-for-profit Child Welfare Political Action Committee (PAC) earlier this year, bringing together a group of resilient individuals with lived experience in child-protection systems across Canada and who beat the odds. We believe that an evidence-based and outcomes-driven child-welfare system is the key to breaking the cycle and ensuring kids succeed.

We need a government that does more than just care about its children. We need a government that checks its own parenting to ensure policies and programs are improving life outcomes. The consequences of the status quo have life-destroying effects on the most vulnerable children in our communities.

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Better life outcomes mean more thriving young people from foster care able to give back to society. Poor outcomes mean more short-term and long-term costs for society. The solution to an effective and progressive child-welfare system is simple: a commitment to evidence-based and outcomes-focused policy-making.

Our system is rich with social workers, administrators and bureaucrats who genuinely care, but it is the politicians who are responsible for setting the legislative and regulatory direction for the sector.

Let's make 2018 the year the Government of Ontario commits to measuring the outcomes of its delivery of care to some of the most vulnerable children in the province.

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