The Ontario government is extending a moratorium on youth "aging out" of care past Dec. 31 for another three months. But advocates pleased with the decision also say they would have liked to see an "indefinite extension" and are continuing to call for a shift in the child welfare system that would see youth transition to the community when they are ready, rather than based on their age.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the province filed a regulation to prevent youth in or from care from aging out of services they were receiving from children's aid societies. That policy was set to expire at the end of June, but was extending until Dec. 31.
Associate Minister of Children and Women's Issues Jill Dunlop posted a video on social media on Dec. 18 confirming that the moratorium would be extended until March 31.
COVID has created added pressure to youth in Ontario’s child welfare system. That’s why our government took action early on to ensure no youth would age out of care during the pandemic. In November, we extended the moratorium until March 2021. pic.twitter.com/AhHMo8uEsB
— Jill Dunlop, MPP (@JillDunlop1) December 18, 2020
"We know COVID-19 has put immense pressure on all Ontarians including youth in the care of children’s aid societies and the child welfare system," said Dunlop. "At a time like this, no young person should be worried about losing their support system, so I’m here to assure you that no youth in care or formerly in care in Ontario will age out of the supports and services they are currently receiving."
Hannah Anderson, a spokesperson for Dunlop, said that on Nov. 27 the province amended the regulation and issued a policy directive to all children’s aid societies. It directs them to "maintain current services and supports for youth who turn 18 over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to promote consistency of care and continuity of service during this public health crisis."
This includes a youth's living arrangements or financial supports. The directive from David Remington, assistant deputy minister with the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services' child welfare and protection division, also states that children's aid societies "are required to continue to provide care and support to youth receiving services under (Continued Care and Support for Youth) agreements, even where the youth turns 21."
Anderson said that the government expects the regulation change would have supported 1,400 youth between the ages of 18 and 21 by March 31.
"I’m happy and grateful that it’s extended until March 31; we’re looking for it to be extended indefinitely till this readiness-based system is in place," said Ontario's former child advocate Irwin Elman.
He said an extension needed to happen given that Ontario is "in the midst of the worst of the pandemic," but he also wished the government wouldn't impose what he referred to as "artificial deadlines."
"Every time they put a deadline in place, it moves the goal post and then young people who are aging out need to worry about what’s going to happen when the deadline comes and what if the pandemic is not settled," said Elman. "It really exacerbates the stress on young people already leaving care without proper supports and into the maelstrom of a pandemic."
Cheyanne Ratnam, co-founder and president of the Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition, called the extension "great news," adding that she along with other advocates asked for an indefinite extension "because of the fact that it doesn’t make sense for young people to exit into the community when we know that the system is not working."
Ratnam said it seems as though there is a "sense of relief" amongst youth due to the moratorium and that there was previously "a lot of fear and a lot of nervousness, anxiety and a lot of mental health impacts" due to concerns over losing supports.
The fact that there is currently an end date for the moratorium is surely "a little bit nerve-wracking," Ratnam said, though adding that she believes the government would be willing to extend it further.
"I think that will happen hopefully once we start doing our partnered work together and I think that it’ll become a lot more obvious that we just can’t let our young people suffer by forcing them back into the community when we know that the system is not levelling up to what it should be," said Ratnam.
Conner Lowes, president of Youth In Care Canada, said while it's a "big step" for the government to have extended the moratorium again, he would have liked to see more including an extension to the summer if not an indefinite one.
"I think it’s pretty clear that the pandemic won’t be completely over in three months," he said. "My worry is that they’re just trying to extend it only as much as they need to and they’re not committing to creating a plan moving forward, and that plan would be a shift ultimately to a readiness-based system and that’s not what they’ve been doing."
Ratnam, Elman and Lowes have been pushing for the government to change the child welfare system to focus on "readiness indicators" instead of age.
Ratnam said they've been speaking with government officials about creating a new system and have submitted both a partnership agreement and a funding proposal for this. She said this would include identifying stakeholders with lived experience and those working in the system, engaging with people across the province to identify different indicators and then piloting these new indicators with a few child welfare agencies.
"It’s not just about young people exiting the child welfare system at 18, it’s also about 16-year-olds who might want to sign out of their agreement voluntarily and then they decide ... 'I made a mistake'; it’s also about those young people being able to come back," she said.
Elman pointed to examples of "readiness indicators" as things like graduating from high school, having a doctor that will provide care when needed or a youth having five "permanent positive relationships" in their life.
Lowes said while he's "cautiously optimistic" about an overhaul to the way youth transition out of care and into the community, the challenge becomes when others call for changes to the child welfare system that still include age cut-offs.
British Columbia's representative for children and youth has recently called for an extension of supports until individuals turn 27.
"So it’s difficult to ask the government to move away from an age-based system when other people are saying increase the age," he said, comparing the situation to two doctors who might propose a different solution to the same problem.
"If their idea of a solution fundamentally differs, it leads you to wonder which one is correct," he said. "And it may be true that both are correct and both may help, but by definition one has to help more and one has to help less, so which one is the one that’s better?"
Nicole Bonnie, CEO of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, said the organization is "very supportive" of the extension of the moratorium.
"During the pandemic, the youth served by child welfare face significant additional challenges and it is vital that we ensure they continue to receive the supports and services they need," Bonnie said in a statement to QP Briefing.
She voiced support of a change to readiness indicators, saying "we are very encouraged that government is actively engaging with youth in and from care in the development of a 'needs-based' system to exiting care in Ontario."
"We know the current system does not consider each individual youth’s readiness to leave the system and that by enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach we are harming their chances of success," she said. "This harm disproportionately impacts youth from marginalized populations, including African Canadians, Indigenous, LGBT2SQ+, and those living with disabilities."
She added that youth leaving care before they are ready are at higher risk of unemployment, homelessness, mental health challenges and criminal justice system involvement.
Dunlop previously said the government was "considering" a shift to a readiness-based system. On Tuesday, the government didn't directly respond to a question about whether it plans to implement this, with Anderson saying that they are working with various stakeholders to "ensure the health and well-being of young people remains the top priority during this challenging time."
"As we redesign child welfare in Ontario, we will continue to meet and speak with advocates, partners and stakeholders, including those with lived experience, to hear how these young people can best be supported and have the opportunity to flourish," she said.