In Conversation Recap: Re-thinking “The New Normal” for Youth Transitioning out of the Child Welfare System — Early Intervention to Prevent Youth Homelessness

Examining how we can make changes to the age cut-offs mandated for young people transitioning out of public institutions and systems is a critical part of preventing and ending youth homelessness. A young person who grows up within child protection services in Canada is often discharged before they are ready for independent life, and most often before their 20th birthday. Some youth are left on their own even earlier due to failure to comply with set conditions. Often, these young people do not have a home or a network of supports to rely on and they find themselves trying to navigate the complexities of services on their own, or ultimately homelessness if their trajectory lands them there.

On May 28, Dr. Melanie Doucet, PhD Social Work and MtS Scholar with Lived Experience, Senior Researcher and Project Manager at the Child Welfare League of Canada and Researcher with the Centre for Research on Children and Families at McGill University, sat down for a dialogue on the “pipeline” from child welfare to homelessness with Dr. Michael Ungar, Founder and Director of the Resilience Research Centre and Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. The conversation was facilitated by David French from A Way Home Canada.

Improving transitions out of the child welfare system is a key component of Making the Shift’s research theme on early intervention. Dr. Doucet and Dr. Ungar shared how a key aspect of the damage is the age cut-offs from support mandated by provincial or territorial legislation, regardless of whether the young person is ready for independent life or not.

While COVID-19 has exacerbated the negative impacts of transitioning from care for many young people, Dr. Doucet and Dr. Ungar also shared how it has presented an opportunity for change. The National Council of Youth and Care Advocates (NCYCA) had successfully advocated to place moratoriums on age cut-offs in the welfare system through the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Doucet and Dr. Ungar urged that now is the time to collectively rethink the ‘new normal’ for child protection as the pandemic in Canada subsides so we can better prevent young people from entering homelessness.

COVID-19 Pandemic and Moratoriums on Canadian Child Welfare Age Cut-offs

The National Council of Youth and Care Advocates (NCYCA) successfully advocated for a moratorium in some provinces and territories, which placed temporary holds on existing transitions from care legislation. This work began in March 2020 when youth in care networks across Canada mobilized to advocate for young people transitioning out of care during the pandemic. Under Dr. Doucet’s leadership, the NCYCA is now thinking through a post-pandemic recovery plan for young people in care, which focuses on a sense of being supported and feeling ready for the transition to adulthood rather than age cut-offs.

“While the council was successful in securing temporary moratoriums in a lot of jurisdictions, it is a temporary measure, and we don’t want to return to the status quo that existed pre-COVID. We’re already starting to see post-pandemic reopening plans being discussed and announced in various jurisdictions across Canada, and the federal government talks about what “a new normal” will look like. Youth in care also deserve this new normal.”

-Dr. Melanie Doucet (abbreviated for clarity)

What the ‘new normal’ could look like: A Long Road Paved with Solutions Report

A Long Road Paved with Solutions: ‘Aging out’ of care reports in Canada: Key Recommendations and Timelines (1987-2020) prepared by Dr. Doucet in collaboration with the NCYCA summarizes 435 concrete and recurring recommendations on aging out of care that have been put forward by youth in care networks, advocates, and researchers across the country since 1987. The resulting five key synthesized recommendations in the report include:

  • Creating national standards for transitions from care
  • Extend transition period for transition to adulthood
  • Implement exit from care framework centred on interdependence
  • Implement HF4Y strategy
  • Eliminate age-based discrimination of child protection services. 

You can read the report A Long Road Paved with Solutions here.

Dr. Ungar also shared his current MtS funded work on transitions from care, which will examine resilience factors and pathways among young people who transition from care and do not fall into unstable housing afterwards. In partnership with the Government of Nova Scotia, Dr. Ungar and his team will follow young people through their final years of care placements employing longitudinal data and qualitative methodologies.

Learn more – Dr. Michael Ungar’s MtS funded research project : Youth Transition from Child Welfare to Precarious Living Conditions: A Mixed Methods Longitudinal Study of Risk and Protective Factors in Nova Scotia 

We followed up with Dr. Doucet and Dr. Ungar on many of the rich audience questions during the Q&A. Here is what they had to say:

Question: Can you speak to the traumatic relationship between the government and children in their care, specifically with some social workers? I know that there is a deep traumatic past between Indigenous youth and social workers, but I want to understand how that also affects non-indigenous kids as well.

Answer – Dr. Ungar: There is always a difference between a single episode in which a child is taken into care, and the systematic removal of an entire population of children because of racism, cultural blinders, etc. That said, at the individual child’s level of experience, I can certainly imagine that there would be parallels with non-indigenous children who believe they are removed for not good reason from their families experiencing the separation much more acutely and traumatically. In other words, it is partially the meaning which a child attributes to their experience and the role their social worker played in that removal which will in part determine the long term impact. Where a child feels the removal was justified and their worker treated them fairly and acted in their best interest, my clinical experience and research tells me that those non-indigenous children do better longer term. When the opposite is true, outcomes are far worse as the experience for the child is one of injustice and forced separation that is not perceived as in their best interest.

Question: Dr. Doucet’s comment around accessing readiness for youth transitioning from care rather than arbitrary age cutoffs speaks to me in my current role with Children Services. My question is, when speaking of readiness, what does this mean and look like?  In my experience, it is a great word with many meanings and many interpretations but not a clear tangible outcome that can be consistently applied and accessed. 

Answer – Dr. Doucet: The sense of readiness must come from the young person – you can develop all the assessment tools in the world, but if a young person indicates they are not ready, then you need to believe them and support them. A readiness framework is youth-centered, flexible, allows for room for trial and error, and the ability to come back and ask for extra supports as needed. It also acknowledges that youth in care are not all one and the same, have different circumstances and needs, and that one-size-fits-all universal approaches are not appropriate. We do not advocate for extending cut-off ages, as this simply creates another sudden cut-off of supports and services, is arbitrary, and does not guarantee that a young person will be fully supported for success by a certain age. We are advocating for equitable standards to be put in place to ensure young people are fully supported in an equitable way that meets them where they are at.

Question: Are there recommendations on creating support networks that a youth deserves before they transition “out” of foster care? There are some models that suggest that in addition to focusing on youth in transition, we should focus on preventing kids from growing up in the care system and not accept that they need to live in the system as long as they do.

Answer – Dr. Doucet: My thesis research is exactly on this topic – I did a Participatory Action Research (PAR) photovoice project with youth from care in Vancouver titled Relationships Matter for Youth ‘Aging Out’ of Care. Here are some links: 

Research report: Doucet, M., Al-aibi, T., Dzhenganin, M., Emmanuel, K., Jules, R., Merrill-Parkin, R., Pratt, H., Read, J., & Vanderwal, S. (2018). Relationships Matter for Youth ‘Aging Out’ of Care Research Report. Victoria, BC: BC Representative for Children and Youth. 

Relationships Matter photo e-book 

Academic journal article: Doucet, M. (2020). All My Relations: Examining nonhuman relationships as sources of social capital for Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth ‘aging out’ of care in Canada. International Journal of Child and Adolescent Resilience (IJCAR), 7(1), 139-153

PhD Thesis: Doucet, M. (2020). Relationships Matter: Examining the pathways to long-term supportive relationships for youth ‘aging out’ of care. PhD Social Work, McGill University, School of Social Work.