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Jacqueline* was just 17 years old when she was told she’d have to move out of her group home by her 18th birthday. 

It was the only home she’d known since age 11, when a child protection investigation found that she had been a victim of severe neglect at home. With no other family available to take her in, Jacqueline was placed in permanent government care – that is, until she turned 18. 

“I was in shock,” she recalls. “I was completely unprepared to live on my own, and I didn’t have a support network to lean on.” 

Jacqueline’s experience is shared by the thousands of young people across Canada who age out of government care each year, forced to leave their foster or group homes as soon as they’re considered legal adults. 

But for these vulnerable youth, who are living with the effects of childhood trauma and have little or no family support, transitioning out of care often means transitioning into poverty and homelessness. 

Kids from care are 200 times more likely to experience homelessness compared to their peers and, with just 46% graduating from high school, opportunities to overcome their circumstances are limited.

Leveling the playing field

Young people leaving care are one of the three priority populations served by Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada, the only charity in the country with a mission to support children and youth involved with the child welfare system on a national scale. 

Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada has been working to improve outcomes for children, youth and families involved in with the child welfare system since 1979. Today, they work in partnership with over 70 child- and youth-serving organizations all across Canada to remove barriers for vulnerable young people and create greater access to the resources kids need to thrive.

“We’re often asked why we need to exist, since child welfare agencies are funded by the provincial governments,” says Valerie McMurtry, President & CEO of Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada. “The fact is that government funding can only go so far. It covers basic operational funding, like the costs associated with child protection work and funding for foster care or group homes, to ensure that kids are safe. But we all know that children need so much more to truly thrive, and that’s where we come in.” 

Funded entirely by donor support, the Foundation designs and delivers a broad range of evidence-based programs and services for its three priority populations: children and families at risk, kids living in government care and, like Jacqueline, youth transitioning out of care. 

Each population faces its own unique challenges. 

Children and families at risk are a major focus for the Foundation. At any given moment, there are around 235,000 children and young people living in vulnerable homes across Canada. For many, this means the effects of poverty are making it difficult for parents to provide appropriate care for kids. For others, it means mental health or substance use issues in the household are putting kids at risk of abuse or neglect.   

These kids are at risk of being removed from their homes and placed in government care – an outcome Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada is working hard to avoid wherever possible. 

“No child should be raised by the government,” says McMurtry. “That’s why one of our biggest priorities is designing and supporting prevention-based programs, which help to strengthen families in the community so that kids can grow up in healthy, resilient homes and with their own families.”

For the 63,000 kids currently living in government care, their low high school graduation rate is among the biggest concerns. Faced with constant moves between foster homes and the ongoing impacts of trauma, young people living in foster care or group homes often struggle to focus on school. Less than half graduate from secondary school, compared to 83% of the general population. 

“Our big focus for this group is on providing intensive education-related supports like tutoring, mentoring, alternative school programs and access to extracurricular activities that help kids stay healthy so they can do well in school,” says McMurtry. “High school graduation is one of the biggest predictors of future stability and income, so we really want to get those rates up as high as we can.” 

Youth transitioning out of the child welfare system have some of the most complex and wide-ranging needs. Often leaving care without a high school diploma or employment prospects and having had few opportunities to learn essential life skills like cooking or budgeting, this population is at high risk of homelessness, chronic poverty, mental health challenges, substance use issues and incarceration. 

That’s why the Foundation is committed to providing wraparound supports for this group, ranging from scholarships and bursaries, to skill-building opportunities, to housing support and mental health counselling. 

“One of the biggest obstacles for youth leaving care is actually a lack of nurturing and healthy adult relationships in their lives,” says McMurtry. “So one of our newer focus areas for this group is on connecting youth with mentors and other caring adults and helping them learn how to manage and maintain those critical relationships.” 

The Foundation’s work is focused on achieving a singular goal: to ensure that every young person involved with the child welfare system in every part of Canada has every opportunity to thrive.

COVID-19: A crisis within a crisis for vulnerable youth

As the world navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, the work of Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada has never been more critical. Job losses, school closures, loss of community resources and economic uncertainty have compounded the challenges faced by all three populations of young people served by the organization. 

“We know that rates of domestic abuse are on the rise, and that mental health and substance use issues are being exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic,” says McMurtry. “COVID-19 is having the most profound impacts on the most vulnerable populations, and for Canada that means kids involved with the child welfare system.” 

To ramp up support for the children and youth they serve during the pandemic, the Foundation has launched the COVID-19 Response Program, a series of COVID-19 support funds that can be accessed by child welfare agency partners through a simple application process. The partners are able to use the funds to directly support the needs of young people living in communities nationwide. 

The organization has also launched a $75 million national campaign to rally Canadians around young people involved with the child welfare system. 

“We want everyone in Canada to stand up for children and youth involved in child welfare,” says McMurtry. “Canada’s young people are our future and they need and deserve our collective investment. We firmly believe that every child has the potential to change the world, and it’s up to each of us to help the most vulnerable kids realize that potential.” 

As for Jacqueline, who received support from the Foundation during her transition out of care, that potential has been realized – and there’s still a lot more to be discovered. She recently received her master’s degree in social work and is now working with young people involved with the child welfare system, just as she was. She’s committed to being an advocate for vulnerable youth and pushing for changes in policy and practice that will support better long-term outcomes. 

“Things needs to change for kids in care,” she says. “And Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada and its supporters are playing a huge role in making that happen.” 

 

You can join the movement to stand up for Canada’s abused and neglected kids by donating today. Learn more about Children’s Aid Foundation of Canada at www.cafdn.org and their Stand Up for Kids campaign at www.standupforkids.ca

 

*Name changed to protect identity.

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