Montreal

Teens aging out of youth protection face real risks. Here's how Batshaw hopes to fix that

When a child in youth protection turns 18, they are on their own, facing a myriad of new challenges and responsibilities — without much support. Aspire, a transitional home for young women, offers a stepping stone to independent living.

Aspire offers stepping stone to independent living for young women who turn 18 in the system

Sarah Mekonen, left, is the live-in mentor at Aspire. Noah, right, is one of the five young women taking part in the program. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Noah spent the night before her 18th birthday with her foster family, packing up her things.

She woke up in her new home, a two-storey brick building on a tree-lined street in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood.

The space is reserved for new adults who have spent their teenage years in the youth protection system and now must transition to life on their own.

"It is hard, but I feel privileged to be here because there is some kind of support," said Noah.

"I turned adult overnight."

Noah, whose real name CBC has agreed not to use, was in foster care from the age of 16 to 18.  

No longer children the moment they turn 18, those who age out of youth protection often find themselves completely on their own.

Concerns about the lack of support for these young adults have been raised several times before the Laurent commission, the ongoing inquiry into problems in Quebec's youth protection services.

A provincial study released earlier this year found that 13 months after leaving their foster home or group home, nearly one in five young adults said they had spent a period of time being homeless.

In all, one third said they were in an unstable living situation.

Witnesses at the inquiry have recommended the province extend services to youth in care beyond age 18, to age 21 or even later.

Creating a home

Silvana Scarrapicchia, who oversees services for older adolescents at Batshaw, is seen here in the dining room at Aspire. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Aspire, started by Batshaw Youth and Family Centres as a pilot project in 2017, could serve as a model for such a reform.

The building has accommodations for five young women between the ages of 18 and 25, along with a live-in mentor. (No such program exists within Batshaw, as of yet, for men).

Each young adult gets her own bedroom.

They share a kitchen, living room and dining room. There is a pool table in the basement, along with laundry facilities.

"We really want to create a home where it feels comfortable, they feel safe and are living together and making new friends and developing relationships," said Silvana Scarrapicchia, who oversees services for older adolescents at Batshaw.

There are rules, as well. Participants are required to be enrolled in school or have a job for a total of 30 hours a week.

Drugs and alcohol are not allowed on the premises, and neither are pets.

Rent is $200 a month. Half of that amount is set aside for savings, to provide each young woman with a safety net once she is on her own.

Sarah Mekonen, the live-in mentor, doesn't receive a salary, but she gets free room and board.

During the day, she works as an outreach worker in Côte-des-Neiges

In the evening, she spends time with her housemates. These days, they are watching a lot of The Office on Netflix.

"We'll just share snacks, talk about our day," said Mekonen, who also spent time in and out of youth protection.

"I think the value is it provides stability to youth who have experienced care," she says. "It provides support and a place for them to learn how to take control over their own lives, especially if they have been in care for a very long time."

There is a shared kitchen and living area in the two-storey building in NDG. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

Noah is 18 and a half now.  Six months after moving into the Aspire house, she said adapting to her new life hasn't always been easy, but she has a growing sense of independence.

"I have to do everything by myself, but it's not as lonely as it might be," she said.

She works at a restaurant and, in January, she's starting the creative writing program at Dawson College.

"I've always written since I was kid," Noah said. "I only started getting serious when I was 14."

"I want to write about my story one day."

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

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