Life after foster care in Canada

Kids who grow up in the system are not expected to do well. That’s a big part of why they don’t.
Jane Kovarik outside Queen’s Park in Toronto. (Photograph by May Truong)

Jane Kovarikova spent 10 years in foster care in Ontario, shuffling between a number of homes beginning at age six. At 16, when she dropped out of high school and successfully applied to leave foster care, her social worker didn’t discuss options for post-secondary education. “There wasn’t a lot of thought about future planning,” says Kovarikova. “And after 21, no one has any responsibility for you.”

Despite feeling that others had extremely low expectations of her, Kovarikova “had a little fire to fight for more,” she says. She stretched her $663 monthly allowance and her paycheques and bought her first house at 19. Kovarikova went on to graduate from high school and then university, to earn a master’s degree at the London School of Economics and to enter a PhD program in political science at Western University, which she is presently completing.

Now 36, Kovarikova has emerged as a singular activist for kids in care. In 2017, she started Child Welfare Political Action Committee Canada (Child Welfare PAC), a cross-country advocacy and research network comprised largely of adults who have spent time in the foster care system. Kovarikova’s primary concern is the lack of federal and provincial data about foster kids, and she’s pushing for a longitudinal study of youth outcomes—everything from social contacts to death rates—after they age out of care. No official government body tracks these kids once they become adults, but academic research has overwhelmingly shown that they have significantly compromised life outcomes compared to peers who were not involved in care.

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Kovarikova estimates there are approximately 78,000 kids in care across the country, and about half will become Crown or permanent wards—meaning the province is the primary legal guardian. In most jurisdictions, a child can be a ward up to age 18, when they “age out” of the system. At that point, many provinces offer certain provisions to former wards—a topped-up welfare cheque, ongoing meetings with a worker, support for post-secondary education or therapy. But at a certain point, often age 21, that disappears and former wards are on their own.

For Kovarikova, the bottom line is this: the state needs to care more about what happens to the children it raises. And one way to do that is by changing its perception of foster kids as damaged goods, unlikely to thrive regardless of intervention. When she was 21 and on the verge of losing her monthly allowance from the Children’s Aid Society, Kovarikova’s social worker suggested transitioning her on to welfare. “It was done out of love because they were worried I was going to lose this money,” she says. “But what parent ever suggests that to their kid as a first resort?”

More recently, when she was asked to review the programs offered to kids who age out, Kovarikova found plenty of information on exercising your rights when you’re evicted or arrested. “Can you imagine giving your kids that kind of material before they leave your home?” she says. “It focuses on survival, not success.”

Even survival can be tenuous. As Kovarikova wrote in her 2017 report for Ontario’s Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth (which was closed by the Ford government in 2019): “Typical outcomes for youth who age out of care include: low academic achievement; unemployment or underemployment; homelessness and housing insecurity; criminal justice system involvement; early parenthood; poor physical and mental health; and loneliness.”

She cites a litany of disheartening statistics: approximately 44 per cent of Ontario wards complete high school—compared to an overall average of 81 per cent—and only a very small percentage go on to receive a bachelor’s degree. As many as 90 per cent of youth in care may be on welfare within six months of aging out.

Varda Mann-Feder, a professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University who researches youth aging out of care, says that both funds and concern are disproportionately allocated to finding placements for young children. “People look at 18-year-olds as if their time is up,” says Mann-Feder. When a teenager moves out of foster care, “they create a space for someone else.”

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And funding creates other problems. Despite a lot of good intentions on the part of both foster parents and social workers, Kovarikova says that as soon as you offer service and pay, you’ve commodified a child—and it can compound the emotional complexity of living in foster care. “When academics look at youth in care, what stands out is the homelessness and jail rates, those hard numbers,” she says. “[But] when you ask youth about their experience in care, what often stands out is the loneliness. You always have to ask: Would they still be doing this if the pay dried up?”

Amelia Merhar spent her early years in Toronto with a mother who struggled with mental health issues. She was apprehended by the Children’s Aid Society at 11, and then bounced around between multiple foster homes and extended family members for several years. She moved out on her own at 16 and stopped receiving services. By the time she graduated from high school, she had attended 13 different schools.

Merhar worked with youth in care in Toronto and the Yukon for her master’s degree in human geography, and is now a first-year Ph.D. student at the University of Waterloo. She studies how systemic displacement and forced movement can have a negative impact on health, well-being and the ability to maintain relationships as an adult.

There are children in Canada’s child welfare system who can’t count the number of homes they have been in, says Merhar. “Kids always hear the phrase, ‘the placement didn’t work out,’” she says. “You’re already often coming from a family on social assistance or with addiction or abuse issues. Then you’re just bounced around and never really told why and it perpetuates feelings of shame and worthlessness.”

Kovarikova’s Child Welfare PAC would like to see a more interventionist and optimistic approach to these problems. They have four core policy goals: evidence-based policy-making to ensure that programming is based on research, not wishful thinking; trauma-informed support to address high rates of PTSD; the sealing of child welfare files to protect privacy; and improving the rates of post-secondary education completion.

Education, commonly touted as the great equalizer for all disadvantaged populations, has become a core focus for child welfare advocates. It is “the only evidence-based pathway that helps kids achieve brighter futures,” says Kovarikova. According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, studies have found that up to 90 per cent of homeless youth have not completed high school.

There has been some movement recently to try to improve outcomes for former kids in care. A growing number of universities and colleges are offering tuition waivers for students who have been in care. British Columbia offers an age-restricted province-wide program, and, earlier this year, Laurentian University started offering tuition waivers for students of any age who were raised in the Ontario foster care system. Ontario recently introduced dedicated youth-in-transition personnel: social workers who help with the aging-out process, including helping kids find a place to live and set personal goals.

READ: How First Nations are fighting back against the foster care system

Former foster kids are also banding together. Youth in Care, a national, charitable organization, was founded in 1985 by youth and alumni from child welfare authorities across Canada. It functions as a public advocacy group that lobbies government, conducts research and serves as a national think tank.

Natasha Reimer-Okemow*, a board member for Youth in Care, started Foster Up, a peer-support group for individuals raised in foster care in Manitoba. She is Indigenous and Caribbean, and interested in the correlation between Indigenous children in care and missing and murdered women, girls and two-spirit people. According to the 2016 Census, 52.2 per cent of children in foster care aged 0-14 are Indigenous, despite accounting for 7.7 per cent of all Canadian children in this age group.

Reimer-Okemow, now 25, was apprehended from her mother shortly after she was born; she was adopted at age four, but returned to care at 14. She aged out of a group home at 18 and found the transition extremely jarring. “Up to that point you have very limited say and then suddenly you have to figure everything off on your own,” she says.

With Foster Up, which meets twice monthly at the University of Winnipeg, Reimer-Okemow hopes to engender a sense of group support while also offering practical information about available resources. “I was on my own, trying to go to university and deal with the world on my shoulders, and I wasn’t sure what resources were out there for me,” says Reimer-Okemow. “To meet other kids who have been in care, who want to thrive, is really empowering.”

But the opportunity to thrive often isn’t straightforward. Many foster kids describe the experience as living someone else’s life—being in and around a family, while never quite part of it. “You’re always on eggshells because you know at any minute you could step out of line and they could return you,” says Kovarikova.

Kristy Denette, who works at Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, remembers that the foster home in Penticton, B.C., where she lived from the age of 12, had a backyard pool, cherry tree and trampoline. But she also remembers that she wasn’t allowed to have a key to the house, and that she was sometimes ushered out of photos. When her foster parents took their own kids on vacation, she and her younger sister would have to go to a group home. “They were really nice people who did the best they could,” says Denette, 34. “[But] it was a little cold, upon reflection.”

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The emotional and tangible consequences of being an outsider can persist well into adulthood. “There’s no one to help me buy a house,” says Merhar. “There’s no one to call for support. And that is the story for many people.” One-third of Toronto’s young adults still live with their parents—prompted largely by the rising costs of living. “Meanwhile, we’re expecting young people to age out at 18, maybe 25 if they have a good placement,” she says. “The child welfare system needs to understand that youth is being extended, but not for the children of the state. That’s setting people up for failure.”

That set-up for failure can dog even the most high-achieving. Arisha Khan, who bounced in and out of foster care as a child, was named a Rhodes Scholar but deferred her start at Oxford due to medical issues complicated by her lack of support. “I still don’t have parents,” says Khan, 23, who serves on the board of Youth in Care. “I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I just need to do a lot of things for myself—and that’s not a good thing.”

A new initiative aims to address this challenge. Never Too Late for Family, a program launched earlier this year by the Adoption Council of Ontario, unites kids who have aged out of care with, finally, a “forever family.” “All a lot of these kids want is a human being who’s not being paid to care for them,” says Aviva Zukerman Schure, co-founder and manager of the program, who adopted a then-18-year-old seven years ago.

The early courtship period can be slightly awkward, but the appeal of this arrangement is clear. Chloe Hockley, 23, went into care at 15 in Ottawa and cycled through three foster homes and two group homes before she turned 18. She was recently matched with a family through the Never Too Late program, and they have been slowly getting to know one another.

“It’s definitely a weird and interesting experience,” says Hockley, who graduated with a degree in psychology from Queen’s University in 2017. “We have family dinners and outings, and they check in on me and make sure I’m okay.” Hockley recently had an incident where she hurt her foot, and her potential family picked her up at the hospital and took care of her. “It’s sort of surreal to know you have people in your corner, who are committed to being there for you,” she says.

Reimer-Okemow, 25, founder of peer-support group Foster Up (Photograph by Jessica Zais)

Financial resources and emotional support are crucial to improving outcomes for kids in care, as is meaningfully tracking those outcomes on provincial and federal levels. Former and present youth in care are raising their voices, but, as Kovarikova points out, there also needs to be a shift in how foster care—and foster children—are perceived. Though they are increasingly raising their own voices, they remain a largely invisible group in society.

Irwin Elman, formerly Ontario’s child and youth advocate, calls this invisibility a form of benign neglect. “People expect that when children are in need of protection, our government steps in to make things better,” he says. “When we speak about how difficult and unforgiving the system can be, people are shocked.”

Former foster kids say we also need to grapple with the stigma attached to low expectations, the idea that children whose parents couldn’t (or wouldn’t) care for them are necessarily themselves less capable or even less deserving of a healthy, satisfying and productive life. Even now, Denette says that she still overcompensates in her professional life, trying to erase the stain of her years in care. “There’s always this sense that you’re not good enough and that it’s your fault that you were put there,” she says. She remembers the sting when her first boyfriend broke up with her after his father found out that she was a foster kid. “I still think about how he made me feel really small,” she says.

In joining Kovarikova’s Child Welfare PAC, Denette hopes she can provide other kids with the nudge they might need to advocate for themselves, to believe that they deserve better than the lousy outcomes they typically receive. She’s grateful for the camaraderie offered by the organization. “I still don’t really have a lot of support, and it’s nice to surround yourself with other people who have made it out.”

“Making it out” really just means having access to the opportunities to hit the milestones so many of us take for granted: receiving an education, getting a job, having a stable place to live and forming loving attachments. But it’s also something more aspirational and less easily defined.

One of the first things Kovarikova did after leaving foster care at 16 was to save money from her job at Staples and buy herself an all-inclusive vacation in the Dominican Republic, hiring a limo to take her to the airport. “If I had shared this plan with my social worker, it would have been a hard no,” she says, laughing. “But it opened my mind to the idea that I could work hard and buy myself a little piece of the good life.”

Having one’s eyes opened to a world of possibilities is essential. But the core question is this: If we’re removing children from their parents to ostensibly improve their quality of life, what are we actually offering them?

“A lot of people say that we don’t own bad outcomes for these kids who get off to a rough start, that they’re just achieving what would have been,” says Kovarikova. “We don’t know that for sure. But you know what we do know for sure? That intervention in the foster care system fails to shift the trajectory upward.”

This article appears in print in the December 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Life after care.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

EDITOR’S NOTE, Nov. 22, 2019: After this story appeared in print, we updated Natasha Reimer-Okemow’s surname.