By Al Donato

When Jane Kovarikova advocates for reform to Canada’s foster care system, she’s speaking from experience.

Kovarikova was one of almost 60,000 Canadian children in care . At six years old, she entered the system, and at twelve she became a crown ward.

The changes to her life came rapidly: Kovarikova was sent to a new school and lived with people she knew little about. To makes things more difficult, her first language was Czech, and she wasn’t used to everyone around her speaking in English.

It was a disorienting and stressful time. “No one ever sat down with me and talked about the trauma I experience by being removed from home or addressed the trauma inflicted at home at any point,” she says.

Once she turned 16, Kovarikova started living on her own and dropped out of high school. While she was financially supported until 21, like many kids in care, “aging out” was difficult. She finally got on track and entered post-secondary school as a mature student and went on to receive a masters in economics. Kovarikova ultimately went on to research how to keep kids like herself from falling through the cracks and compiled a report for the Ontario Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth in 2017.

“The outcomes for children leaving care now are pretty bleak. Not because of the children,” Kovarikova adds. “[The system’s] goal is to protect you and keep you safe, not to raise a child to have the best chance at a future.”

Her research found that youth leaving care experience high rates of mental health issues, unemployment, poverty, loneliness, and criminal involvement, suggesting the system hasn’t gotten better at preparing kids for adulthood. Outcomes remained consistently negative over the past 40 years.

Kovarikova started a national non-profit organization, the Child Welfare Political Action Committee Canada (CW PAC) to make recommendations based on data. The group’s four advocacy goals all urge an overhaul from the ground up.  

Often the trauma of being in care is handed down through generations. CBC Docs POV film Next of Kin tells the story of two youths living in a St. Catharines shelter whose parents were in government care.

A framework that emphasizes adult futures for kids

Child welfare is governed provincially, with few regularly updated national statistics. A national census found that there are 17,000 foster kids in Ontario. According to a Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth press release, more than 40 per cent of Ontario’s youth in care are crown wards. It’s a population that Kovarikova says isn’t being adequately equipped with life skills by the province’s current services, partly because of the “very naïve” belief that care is a temporary intervention. 

“That’s a very permanent designation and means the province has the responsibility of a parent,” she says. “You’re literally raising them. You need to start planning for their adult futures and giving them every opportunity to succeed.”

Welfare services based on evidence and outcomes

As a teen, Kovarikova remembers a life skills program that instructed her to use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to manage her funds.

“I don’t know any 16-year-olds who do this. It’s just completely unrealistic,” Kovarikova says.

She suggests an alternative to that lesson would be if a financial expert explained credit scores to her, a concept she could use. But even that suggestion is speculative, she cautions. “If it’s not evidence-based, you haven’t checked your impact.”

How impact is measured is important too. Kovarikova notes that family-finding programs measure their success by connecting youth with family members. Although reunions and new connections can have happy outcomes, she states that without research that follows up on these youth, it’s unknown if these programs improve their lives afterwards.

Privacy rights for crown wards

Although Kovarikova left the system 15 years ago, her care file can still be read by welfare personnel with little safeguards tracking who is authorized to access her records.

“For foster kids, the most traumatic parts of our upbringing are searchable,” she says.

In comparison, the Youth Criminal Justice Act provides juvenile offenders with a higher degree of confidentiality; the law allows identities to be purged from databases and prevents files from being opened, except in court.

Creating trauma-informed care

A national U.S. study finds that adults who were in care are five times more likely to have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than the average person.

“At the moment, if you look up PTSD you think of war veterans. Foster children by definition have incurred trauma. And yet, we’re not even part of that conversation. Our system reflects it,” she says.

When that trauma isn’t addressed, it can have devastating consequences. A coroner’s report into the deaths of foster children in Ontario from 2014 to 2017 found that all faced mental health challenges, CBC reports. Eight of the children were Indigenous and didn’t receive culturally-appropriate care, the report found.

What Canadians can do to help

To raise awareness about their goals among service providers, politicians, and the public, CW PAC plans to host an annual Advocacy Day at Queen’s Park. She welcomes all Canadians to join in advocacy efforts, as well as take grassroots action, such as getting involved with their local Children’s Aid Board of Directors.

Kovarikova’s critiques of the system are just that. She says she doesn’t believe the system’s shortcomings are the fault of any individual, including the administrative and legal welfare employees who work towards the wellbeing of the system’s most vulnerable.

“The people who can change the structure are the politicians. The problem is how the system is structured. It’s not set up for anyone in the long-run.” she says.