Whose voices matter when we think about youth in the care of the state? It is essential to listen to young people themselves in order to improve outcomes.
The focus of my research has been educational attainment of youth in care, and how youth themselves are a resource for supporting the achievement of their peers. While studying existing research about the educational outcomes of young people in care, in 2006, I began a campus mentorship program through which more than 200 youth have since developed education action plans and several have completed degrees, diplomas or certifications.
This is in a context where systemic changes are necessary to alleviate many of the factors impacting the apprehension of children and youth, and to ensure in a climate of provincial cutbacks in Ontario that youth in care will be heard when they voice complaints.
It remains to be seen how Canada will fulfil promises to reduce child poverty and develop new child welfare legislation with Indigenous communities. APTN reports that Jane Philpott, Minister of Indigenous Services, said the new legislation should mark a “turning point” that will be lifesaving.
Poverty is a dominant predictor of child welfare involvement and has consequences for the healthy development of children. Safe housing, clean drinking water, nutritious food, access to recreation and opportunity for developmentally appropriate educational scaffolding are the foundational necessities for healthy child development.
In this wider social context, it is hardly surprising that child welfare research from around the world has identified that young people growing up in care have poorer educational outcomes than their community peers.
Adverse factors that disrupt their education can occur before they enter care as well as during their time in care. These can include poverty, frequent moves, inadequate mental health support, a history of maltreatment, trauma experiences, multiple caregivers and frequent school changes.
Amid these long-standing social and policy issues that need to be addressed, young people in care deserve special consideration and focused attention regarding how to meet their educational needs.
A child in continuing care
The process of becoming a child in extended society care (formerly known as a Crown ward) is often marked by repeated attempts at temporary care and reunification with the child’s family.
Ontario has one of the lowest rates of child/youth apprehension in Canada: under four per cent of cases that are investigated by aid societies result in apprehension. Eighty per cent of the young people who enter care are returned to live with their family within 36 months.
Some youth are not able to return home and are placed permanently in care, with or without access to the parent. This current discussion focuses on the educational needs of those young people who are permanently placed in the care of a children’s aid society.
Simply being in care defines the young person as having heightened vulnerability; academic moves on top of placement moves can exacerbate the vulnerability.
A school move means teacher change. It means a shift in how the student is evaluated or the scheduling of academic classes and it means a loss of young person’s peer and support network. Placement moves typically create an educational disruption for the young person that has been shown to increase the risk of poor academic performance.
One intervention that holds much promise for assisting young people in care with educational improvement is funding transportation that allows them to remain in their school. Unless there are reasons in the child’s own interest not to, staying in the same school contributes to educational stability.
A peer-led social innovation
In 2006, I decided to invite, tuition-free, a small group of young people in care to join my undergraduate course in children’s rights and to work with me to plan a summer campus exposure event.
This experience invited (then-) Crown ward youth onto campus and directly challenged the stigma associated with being in care by fostering a sense of belonging on campus. It led to a two-week summer camp, post-secondary educational exposure program that sought to enable youth to pursue their goals.
The program evolved as a partnership model with young people at the centre.
This initial group that formed The Voyager Project is now in its 13th year; the group uses a peer-to-peer mentoring approach to engage in campus exposure events, undertake knowledge mobilization efforts and engage youth in systems change.
The young people who are members of The Voyager Project represent a group who, by no fault of their own, found themselves under the permanent guardianship of the state as children. With small investments made in them, they used the opportunity to reach back to current young people in care to encourage them to pursue education.
Belonging matters for educational success
Young people in The Voyager Project studied the importance of belonging for young people in care. They identified school as a key enabler of their sense of belonging and as a place with the potential to foster opportunities to belong through art and sporting activities.
Through their conference presentations, government submissions and direct interventions, members of The Voyager Project have supported the educational aspirations of young people. They have impacted the lives of young people in the care of children’s aid societies in Toronto and across the province.
Young people in the temporary or continuing care of a society need to be provided with educational enrichment programs — to help identify learning challenges, remediate education deficits and foster a sense of connectedness.
The general public should stay informed about the well-being of young people in care and hold governments to account — to ensure that they are meeting their obligations to support young people’s well-being and educational progress.