The Sunday Magazine

How former youth in care are working to fix Canada's child welfare system

Connie Walker speaks with Ashley Bach, an Indigenous youth leader, Arisha Khan, a Rhodes Scholar, and Melanie Doucet, a PhD student in social work. All three also grew up in foster care and are now working to reform the system in Canada.
Melanie Doucet, Arisha Khan and Ashley Bach (L-R) all spent time in Canada's child welfare system. Their experiences in care pushed all of them to work to reform the system. (Submitted by Melanie Doucet; Alison Gu; CBC)

When Ashley Bach first got to university, she tried her best to hide the fact that she grew up in Canada's child welfare system. 

Eventually, however, she had a change of heart when considering the struggles of her younger foster siblings.

"I realized then that I'd been fortunate enough to finish high school and go to university and ... maybe I could do use that privilege that I had to try to change the system and make it better for my foster siblings and for other kids."

Today, Bach is the president of Youth in Care Canada, and she's part of a network of former youth in care who are drawing on their lived experience to push for change.

Ashley Bach, Arisha Khan and Melanie Doucet spoke to The Sunday Edition's guest host Connie Walker about how their time in care informs the work they do today, and what needs to change for the next generation. 

'Unfair for kids to have to do that'

Given the grim statistics surrounding outcomes for youth in care, the successes of people like Arisha Khan — who recently won a Rhodes Scholarship — are celebrated. 

But instead of talking about how they beat the odds, some who have achieved success prefer to talk about why the odds are stacked so high against youth in foster care in the first place.

[I had to be] my own parent, my own therapist, my own lawyer when I was 14.- Arisha Khan

"I developed a lot of skills while I was in care that carried me through and basically had me being my own parent, my own therapist, my own lawyer when I was 14," said Khan. 

"I think that's very unfair for kids to have to do that. It's not normal for a kid to be working 40-plus hours a week and going to school and taking care of themselves in order to just get out and be able to graduate."

Khan bounced in and out of the foster care system beginning when she was six years old. She was in a string of temporary care arrangements, which meant she wasn't eligible for some of the same supports as permanent Crown wards. 

When Crown wards reach the age of majority, they "age out" of the system and lose government support, typically at 18 or 19 years old. But Khan says people need to realize those in temporary arrangements may lose access to support even earlier. 

Arisha Khan bounced in and out of Ontario's child welfare system between the ages of six and 18. (Submitted by Arisha Khan)

"In my experience, and I see this happening in the system a lot now, it's kids who are younger and younger that don't even meet that age of majority who are being dropped by their child welfare agencies, either formally or informally just through a lack of support," she said. 

"In my case I was working too much, and so then they took away those supports."

Khan studied health and social policy at McGill University, where she helped pioneer a bursary for former youth in care.

At Oxford, she will be "examining cross-sectoral collaborations between health and social service systems to address the health needs of children and youth in state care."

Self-sufficiency vs. interdependence

Melanie Doucet, who spent time in care in New Brunswick, said youth in care are expected to be instant adults when they lose government support. 

"When you look at kids who aren't in care, they're not expected to be basically disowned by their parents just because they reach the age of majority, which is what happens to kids in care," she told Walker. 

She said the expectation of instant self-sufficiency is unfair and unrealistic, given that young people in the rest of society are increasingly living at home longer or moving home in times of crisis. 

"[Former youth in care] don't have that option … you can't return into care if you're going through a rough time. That's why, if you look at the statistics of homelessness, it's really not a good outcome for kids who age out, because they're basically left on the side of the street with a garbage bag full of belongings if they didn't have a good social worker that helped them find their first apartment."

Melanie Doucet entered care in New Brunswick as a teenager and moved six times in four years. "It's really hard to develop healthy attachments to people when you're bounced around from home to home," she said. (Melanie Doucet/Twitter)

Doucet is currently a PhD candidate in social work at McGill University, where her research focuses on pathways to supportive long-term relationships for youth exiting government care. She recently completed a project with eight former youth in care about the importance of relationships in their lives.

Doucet said she wants to see the child welfare system focus on teaching interdependence and helping youth in care form healthy relationships, rather than sending the message that youth in care need to be able to fend for themselves. 

"I'd really like that whole independent living paradigm to be completely eliminated ... to focus on interdependence instead, because that's how kids who aren't in care live their lives. They are supported by their families, their friends, and their communities throughout their entire lives, and there's no magical age where that stops," she said. 

"So kids in care also deserve to experience that."

Land and culture

Bach, a member of the Mishkeegogamang First Nation in northern Ontario, entered foster care in B.C. at birth. 

She said it's important for Indigenous youth in care to have opportunities to reconnect with their communities — something she didn't have the chance to do when she was young. 

"It was honestly never even encouraged to know what my community's name was. I actually didn't learn that until I was 17," she said. 

"I missed everything that First Nations youth should have — in particular, Anishinaabe youth. I missed all the rites of passage, and missed the cultural teachings. I didn't get to go out in the bush with a family member and learn everything from the land. I didn't get to meet family members who ended up passing away." 

Ashley Bach, pictured here with her newly handmade moosehide gloves, said it's important for Indigenous youth in care to have the chance to reconnect with their culture. (Donna Simon)

Today, Bach sits on the Nishnawbe Aski Nation's young people's council, and she recently testified before the Canadian Senate about Bill C-92, on Indigenous child welfare. 

She said there are some initiatives to help Indigenous youth connect with their culture, but she's yet to see substantial change. 

"There's a little bit in British Columbia, but it's not enough for the demand. Some First Nations have implemented their own programs to bring kids out on land camp, but it's not something that I've seen yet at a systemic level," she said. 

"One social worker won't be able to, for example, send you all the way back home to your First Nation or travel with you to visit your nation and meet elders in your community. That's something that the system as a whole has to learn how to support."

Family reunification 

Khan said there is an increased focus on family reunification in the child welfare system — in part because of the legacy of the Sixties Scoop, and the over-representation of Indigenous youth in foster care today. 

While reunification is the right goal for some, she said those decisions need to be made on a case-to-case basis.

The child or youth's voice needs to be heard.- Ashley Bach

"You have to put supports in place to ensure that families can be supported — or if the child wants to be on their own, that they will be supported as well," said Khan. She's sometimes seen child welfare agencies use the rhetoric of reunification without delivering adequate support to families.

"There wasn't really investment in communities in order to allow for structural support needed for kids to thrive. I think using the family reunification rhetoric without also taking into account what the needs and wishes of the child are is really harmful."

Bach said it's crucial for decisions about reunification to be as youth-centred as possible. 

"First and foremost, the child or youth's voice needs to be heard. Their wants and their needs have to be considered and factored in, and that's easier to do with the youth than it is with a young child, but it's still something that the social workers and judges should really be considering," she said.

Click listen above to hear the interview.