photos: Ivery Castilloux lived through 11 different foster homes before turning 16. Photo: Stefania Seccia.

Aging Out Too Young - foster youth need more supports

Before his 16th birthday, Ivery Castilloux lived through 11 different foster homes—more homes than many people inhabit in a lifetime. He lived with and was taken away from his mother’s care nine times, attended several different schools, and bounced between social workers across the Lower Mainland.

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On top of the constant, unpredictable change through that time, those years were awash with rising apprehension. As his 19th birthday loomed, what little stability he was able to find in foster care would slip away as he became of legal age in B.C. As an adult in the eyes of the government, he would, by age 19, become ineligible for provincially funded supports as a foster child. When Castilloux did turn 19, the B.C. government cut him a small cheque for a few hundred dollars, a payment that signified the end of its responsibility to him. He was on his own. 

Despite the tumultuousness of most his teenage years, Castilloux had one stroke of good fortune. Before he aged out of government care, he was referred to Aunt Leah’s, a New Westminster-based charity that supports foster children through housing and a range of support services. It’s one B.C’s few residential facilities serving youth aging out of foster care.

He found a safe place to land at Aunt Leah’s when he needed it badly. But Castilloux’s foster care experiences leading up to that time—traumatic, common among other youth in care— indicate that better services are needed. For many former foster youth, services like Aunt Leah’s are the only thing keeping them from absolute homelessness.

“Everyone needs a parent”

He didn’t want to share the specifics of his foster care experience before Aunt Leah’s, but it was plagued with hardship. He remembers loneliness, physical and emotional distress, and other harrowing situations often synonymous with other foster children’s experiences.

“Everyone needs a parent, no matter what,” Castilloux says. “Past 19, everyone needs a moment of familiarity to get you by situations. Even if you don’t have a perfect family, you end up reverting back to your family situation…the thing is, foster kids have never really had that.”

Now 23, Castilloux is attending Langara College to further his education in IT. Previous to Langara, he spent about six years in the Army Reserve, and he even started his own business. He credits much of his success to his continued link to Aunt Leah’s, which employs him part-time to handle their social media presence.

 “I firmly believe you [can] reach successbut it’s very hard to do that when you’re all by yourself,” Castilloux says. That’s what it’s like being a foster kid. You really don’t trust anyone.”

To soften the blow of aging out, raise the age

At any given time, there are about 1,000 children under 19 in B.C.’s foster care system. Fall 2012 marked the first time the government released the total number of foster children across Canada. In 2011, there were 47,885. B.C. made up 7,005 of that number.

Over the last year, the debate over whether or not the province should raise the age for aging out of care age from 19 to 24 has played out in the media. Extensive research, interviews and studies have all supported the idea of raising it to 24 in an era where most children do not move out of their parents’ house until their late 20s or early 30s. The same support, researchers have argued, should be applied to B.C.’s most vulnerable children in government care.

But, Castilloux notes, if the government does raise the age for aging out of care to 24, it should also implement more services and help than what’s available now, specifically services aimed at bringing needed stability to their lives.

“At the end of the day, the main issue is there hasn’t been a parent throughout their life,” he says of foster youth. “There hasn’t been any consistency. Kids move from foster home to foster home, from school to school, from teacher to teacher, from even social worker to social worker; and so there’s no consistency.”

There’s no consistency in how the “age out of care” age plays out across Canada, either. Every province has a different “age out of care” age, the time when the government “parent” no longer supports its youth. For instance, in B.C. it’s 19, but in Ontario it’s 18.

Statistics suggest the current age-out system isn’t working. About half of the children who age out when they’re 19 in B.C. become homeless, according to Gale Stewart, founder and executive director of Aunt Leah’s Place.

“I think most of us don’t realize how limited they are when they reach 19,” she adds. “That many of them don’t even their ID. They’re really vulnerable.”

Through the Link program, fresh potential

Stewart formed Aunt Leah’s informally in 1988 when she started a licensed, five-bed residential program for pregnant and parenting teens in foster care. To this day, her charity helps about 30 kids of the 800 to 1,000 in the government care system. It provides foster care children and teen mothers guidance, supported housing, job training and coaching in essential life skills.

For Stewart, she says it’s imperative that the government gets on board and raises the aging out of care age to 24 in B.C.

“It’s a social justice issue,” she says. “Why should children who’ve suffered more than children in a mainstream home not have the same support as a young person coming out of a mainstream home?”

What gives Stewart hope is how the social paradigm has shifted over the last few years, and the conversation to support ending homelessness has reached the mainstream.

“If research shows that over 45 to 50 per cent of the homeless people self-identify as former foster children, then economically the question has to be asked: Why aren’t we doing something about this?” she says.

In an effort to fill the gap, Aunt Leah’s started offering the Link program, which is only open to adults over the age of 19 but were formerly one of Aunt Leah’s program participants or residents or child in care of the Ministry for Child and Family Development.

Link offers educational planning, help in finding housing, applying for income assistance, access to contraception, and help in dealing with health and medical issues, among others. A transition worker works one-on-one with each young person as well.

“The political will is not there”

Deborah Rutman is an adjunct associate professor in the faculty of human and social development at the University of Victoria. She evaluated the Link program on behalf of Aunt Leah’s, comparing a group of young people involved in the program and a group of youth who aged out of care without it.

The study suggested that the Link program significantly helped its participants.

To truly improve the outcomes of youth aging out of care, however, Rutman supports raising the age for aging out of care to 24.

“I think from a community perspective, it would support and enable young people to stay and develop those feelings of connection, feelings of belonging, feeling they matter,” she says.

She also notes there would be cost benefits to raising the age in terms of housing, education, employment, a decrease in unplanned pregnancy and therefore less reliance on the welfare system.

“It’s certainly not universal across the board that after youth age out of care they’re able to access those programs that exist,” she says about the limited amount of government services available post-care. “It would definitely require a different way of thinking. The political will is not there currently.”

“Our focus is ensuring transitions are smooth:” B.C. government

According to B.C.’s minister of children and family development, the province is doing all it can for youth who age out of foster and government care.

When asked if the government is considering raising the aging out age to 24, minister Stephanie Cadieux had this to say.

“In our experience, not all youth who age out of foster care want continued contact with a social worker,” she said in a statement to Megaphone. “Instead, many have asked for more independence and support in accessing assistance that allows them to move into adulthood.”

Cadieux added a number of programs and services exist across the government to support transitioning youth. This includes housing options, addictions counseling and education assistance.

“We need to ensure young people are aware of available services and help them access those services,” her statement read. “Our focus is ensuring transitions are smooth and that kids aren’t left to navigate the system of comprehensive supports on their own.”

Cadieux also noted that certain youth agreements are offered for those who want to extend the transition age to 24. And the government recently announced a $250,000, 18-month pilot program called Strive, which will be delivered through a partnership between the ministry and the YWCA Metro Vancouver to help youth transitioning from care gain life and work skills.

Foster youth data paints a different picture than the one Cadieux describes. In 2012, only 30 per cent of foster youth signed the Agreement with Young Adults that provides two years of funding and supports transitioning youth up to the age of 24. And such an agreement had to be signed by someone under the age of 19.

“Government says it can’t afford to support these young adults in getting an education or employment, so instead we’re paying while many of them struggle with mental health issues, getting involved in the criminal justice system, or relying on income assistance,” Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s youth and children’s rights watchdog, tells Megaphone.

When youth age out every year from foster care, she adds, they’re essentially shown the door and expected to make it on their own—with few available resources to guide them to success.

“We’re paying more,” Turpel-Lafond says, “for worse outcomes for these young people.”

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