photos: Top: Photo and caption by Martha Dzhenganin. Right: Researcher Melanie Doucet. Photo by RaRa.

'Home is a person, not a place'

A new vision for foster care develops using youth-led photography and conversation.

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Story by Paula Carlson (Megaphone) and Katie Hyslop (The Tyee)

When Raina Jules was feeling lost and alone as a youth in foster care, she knew where to turn for unconditional love: Animals.

Sometimes, the stuffed variety.

“It’s hard to have animals when growing up in care,” says Jules, who was taken into government care at age 14. “For my part, I actually used stuffed animals... any small thing means a lot when you don’t have unconditional love. [Animals are] there for you, not judging you, they’re happy to see you.”

The importance of pets for foster kids is one of the findings of a research project by Melanie Doucet, a PhD candidate at the McGill University School of Social Work, and eight youth—including Jules, now 24 years old—who have been through the foster care system in B.C.

Her project, Relationships Matter for Youth “Aging Out” of Care, was released by B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth (RCYBC) last month and focuses on the importance of developing and maintaining relationships in the lives of young people in and from care.

The report explores their connections with culture and community, as well as ties with family, friends, mentors and social workers.

Doucet says her collaboration with youth led to some surprising suggestions for change.

“Pets came out as one of the most important relationships for youth who aged out of care,” says Doucet, who aged out of New Brunswick’s foster system two decades ago and tellingly, has had a cat ever since.

“For the average kid in care, [he or she goes] through six or seven placements. It’s hard to attach to and trust adults,” Doucet, now 38 years old, explains. “There are lots of studies that show animals helps children’s anxiety and depression. Animal therapy is a real thing.”

Her report is the result of a 12-week "photovoice" project that happened in 2017.

"Photovoice" is described as a process in which people identify,  comment upon and represent their community through photography. In this case, Doucet gave her co-researchers—former foster kids aged 19 to 29—digital cameras and asked them to document the importance of relationships in their lives and any barriers they faced to creating and maintaining them.

The young photographers explored their ideas for change in their communities, government policies and interventions
for youth in care—all through the 
lens of relationships. They then met to review and critique the photos and discuss the themes that emerged.

This formed the basis of photovoice, which culminated in a free gallery showing in Vancouver, where the photos were captioned with recommendations for improving foster care.

Doucet says the main premise of the report is that rather than continue with a foster care system that produces isolation under the guise of independence, a framework needs to be built around creating, strengthening and maintaining connections between youth and care providers.

“The report is meant to educate the public and remind the government that independent living should not be the focus,” she says. “Youth falling through the cracks are completely on their own. Research and personal experience are showing that there is too much emphasis placed on independent living and preparation goals.”

The report argues that B.C.'s Independent Living Programs, which focus solely on practical skills such as cooking, cleaning and budgeting, are not sufficient on their own to prepare youth for success.

While these skills are important, youth in care say emotional support and long- term contact with caregivers are also crucial during the transition to adulthood.

“Unlike their peers who can continue to seek assistance and support from their families,” the report states, “youth who have left the child protection system do not have the option to return to the care of the province in times of difficulty.”

Without this support, Doucet says the consequences can be dire.

Last spring, the B.C. Coroners Service reported that youth aging out of care are dying at five times the rate of their peers—one-quarter from suicide.

A notable example includes Alex Gervais, a B.C. teen who took his own life in 2015, just before aging out of foster care. The RCYBC found that a lack of permanent connection to his family and culture, as well as the absence of needed mental health supports, contributed to his death.

“The B.C. child welfare system failed to act on opportunities to find Alex a permanent home with family and instead left him to drift through 17 care placements over 11 years until he ultimately leapt through his Abbotsford hotel window on Sept. 18, 2015,” a RCYBC investigation noted at the time, adding that “Alex was looking for what every child needs and has a right to—the security and permanence of a home and lasting connection to family.”

In short, Doucet would like to see kids in care have the same opportunities as kids who are not in care, and that includes supportive connections to family—whatever that looks like—into their 20s and beyond.
The 34 recommendations outlined in 
Doucet’s project include B.C. raising the age to leave foster care from the current
19 to 25. The suggestion is not outside what's already occurring in contemporary Canadian homes; census figures show more 
than 40 per cent of Canadians aged 20-29 currently live with their parents, either because they never left home or because they returned home after living elsewhere.

Perhaps co-researcher Sabien Vanderwal says it best in a caption from photovoice: “Home is a person, not a place.”

The report also calls for ensuring young people have access to adequate and affordable housing when they do age out of the system; expanding the availability of post-aging out tuition waivers and financial support programs to all youth from care at any age; and implementing youth-centred decision making.

The recommendations go beyond the Ministry of Children and Family Development, which oversees the foster care system in B.C., and outlines action needed from BC Housing, landlords, municipal and provincial governments, educators and health professionals.

For Harrison Pratt, one of the youth co- researchers, recommendations that more be done to help foster kids maintain connections and relationships with culture are critical.

“Culture saves lives,” says Pratt, who was 26 when he started working with Relationships Matter. Now 27, he says culture helps individuals find and build their own sense of themselves, as well as connect to others. “It’s actually quite dehumanizing to
not have access to [your own] culture,” 
Pratt says. “What most youth are left with is a very reduced reality, a very bare life. Why would life be worth living if you have nothing left to live for?”

Jules, who is Indigenous, agrees.

“It’s really a sad thing... on our land, our territory, our people knew how to take care of each other. Because of what happened decades ago, the ‘Sixties Scoop,' we’ve lost that connection.”

Co-researcher Martha Dzhenganin, now 20, related most to the recommendation for youth-centred decision making.

“When we were doing this project, we were agreeing that we didn’t feel like we had any input into what was going on in our lives,” Dzhenganin says. “Really being listened to is what we’re asking in that one.”

Doucet plans to credit her eight co- researchers as collaborators when she writes her doctoral dissertation. Individually and together they plan to continue making presentations on their findings to governments, media and any other interested stakeholders.

“It’s not just my project, it’s their project, it’s our project,” Doucet says, adding that youth from care should be recognized as experts on foster care.

“It’s so important to adopt those kinds of approaches when you’re researching vulnerable populations,” she says, “because
it takes away power when you do traditional scientific approaches, and this is a way to give back the power and to empower them.”

View the Relationships Matter photovoice book at:

Read the full Relationships Matter for Youth “Aging Out” of Care at:

The Relationship Matters project team (from left): Tahsina Al-aibi, Raina Jules, Sabien Vanderwal, Harrison Pratt, Martha Dzhenganin, Keeshana Emmanuel, Melanie Doucet, Ronda Merrill-Parkin and Jordan Read. Sarah Race Photography.


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