Appeal dismissal puts Alberta young adults transitioning out of government care in limbo

Hundreds of young adults in Alberta are waiting to hear when they will be cut off from a program helping them transition out of government care.

Alberta government says recipients losing benefits are eligible for extension

Lawyer Avnish Nanda says the government is putting hundreds of marginalized young adults at a greater risk by losing the person who most closely resembles a parent in their lives.  (Sam Martin/CBC)

A Supreme Court appeal dismissal has left hundreds of young adults in Alberta bracing to be cut off from a program that helps them transition out of government care.

The participants were previously eligible to remain in the Support and Financial Assistance Agreements (SFAA) program until they turned 24, but the UCP government reduced the age of eligibility to 22.

The legislative change was delayed for more than a year by an injunction granted to one of the affected recipients known as A.C. in court documents.

In January, the Alberta Court of Appeal overturned the injunction but warned that care must be taken to minimize harm to impacted participants.

On June 24, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed A.C.'s application for appeal.

"It is a bit unsettling for me but I'm just really trying to push through it and hope that everyone else is supported by their caseworkers, just like mine is supporting me," said A.C., 22, who is still moving ahead with legal action challenging the constitutionality of the change.

A.C. says her social worker helped her escape a cycle of violence and addiction, reconnecting her and her daughter with their Cree heritage. She is excited to start university in the fall to study social work. 

"If it wasn't for me being in the SFAA group and having Melissa [her caseworker] all these years, I definitely think I would have been on a different path and it wouldn't have been a good one," she said.

Without SFAA, she worries there won't be someone to talk to in government who understands what recipients have been through and keeps them on the right path.

"We're not being heard right now and especially with everything that's going on, it's kind of kind of cruel," said A.C., referring to the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous children and a foster care system described as a present-day residential school system, where the majority of youth are Indigenous.

 "I don't think that we need to be put through anymore than we already have been through," she said.

The role of the caseworker in the lives of the SFAA recipients — often facing trauma, mental illness, addiction and poverty — was at the heart of an argument made by A.C.'s lawyer.

Lawyer Avnish Nanda says the abrupt end to services puts participants at greater risk, by losing the person in their lives who most closely resembles a parent and the financial benefits that allow them to finish school and become employable.

"We've received word that the government has been moving quickly to cut off these vulnerable youth from their SFAA supports, doing what the Court of Appeal warned that they shouldn't do and putting these folks into very serious and dangerous situations," said Nanda.

"We're talking about the most vulnerable youth in our province and for the government to just cut these supports at this time is just a travesty. 

"I really hope that folks will realize that this, for many, in many instances, is a situation of life and death." 

'Someone to rely on'

The provincial government says about 450 SFAA recipients will be affected.

Children's Services says 22- and 23-year-olds are eligible for an extension of six months or even longer for those unable to connect to the right services.

"Caseworkers will make sure no young adult is left behind by providing access to the right supports and services, and make sure they have someone to rely on for ongoing guidance," said Nancy Bishay, a spokesperson with Children's Services, in an email.

In addition, said Bishay, the Advancing Futures Program "provides funding, social and emotional assistance for young adults aged 18 to 24 who have been in care to help them pursue post-secondary studies and prepare for a career."

She said the government and Native Counselling Services of Alberta have just launched an app to help former and current youth in care navigate the adult world.