Young people who are pushed out of government care at age 19 too often disappear into a life of poverty and neglect. As far as the rest of society is concerned, they are out of sight and out of mind.
The consequences are devastating for young lives when people without preparation and supports are tossed into a world for which they are ill-equipped.
On Tuesday, dozens of those young people had the ears of 41 government officials, including Minister of Children and Family Development Katrine Conroy and Premier John Horgan. They were voices the ministers needed to hear.
“This is an unprecedented day for youth in care, to be able to speak to those in government directly and so many at one time,” said Dylan Cohen, 22, a former youth in care and organizer with First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.
The youth came with stories, but more importantly, they came with policy recommendations.
They said that those who age out of care should be able to count on three things until their 26th birthdays: consistent financial support (housing, transit and food), long-term relationships with dependable adults, and a chance to connect with and contribute to their communities.
These are not new requests. Former representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond repeatedly pointed out the terrible cost of abandoning young people because they reach an arbitrary birthday.
She challenged B.C.’s universities to help by offering free tuition to former youth in care. Vancouver Island University was the first to take up the challenge, and others have followed.
But education is only part of the solution. The loss of social and financial supports is the biggest blow.
“When my kids turned 19, I didn’t say … see you later,” Conroy said.
“As a government, we are the parents of kids in care and can’t do that, either. We have to show we can be good parents, and that’s what I’m committed to doing.”
The lack of supports is a major reason that a disproportionate number of these young people are homeless, poor and in trouble with the legal system. After years in foster care, they don’t have anyone they can count on for the long term and they haven’t learned many of the skills they need to cope on their own.
Even people with lots of family support and strong social networks have trouble making the transition from high school into the wider world. It’s vastly more difficult for those coming out of care.
This week, some of those young people had a chance to put their concerns to people who have the power to do something about it.
“I’ve struggled to be heard, but today I feel heard,” Cohen said.
The civil servants and ministers heard. Now they must turn that knowledge into policies that will make a difference for youth in care.