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Editorial: Foster care's link to homelessness

Sep 28 2012

Here is a statistic that warrants our attention: Close to half the young people living on the streets of downtown Victoria spent time in foster homes.

That's not out of line with the rest of the country. Nationwide, around 160,000 young adults are homeless, and nearly 50 per cent were raised by foster parents.

But in any other social service, a failure rate of that magnitude would result in immediate action. Ministers would apologize and reforms would be promised.

Not here. The proportion of kids who start out in foster care and end up on the streets has been growing steadily for two decades.

In one respect, the worsening trend is understandable. Foster children face ever-greater difficulties.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is on the rise. Mental-health challenges such as autism and hyperactivity are diagnosed more frequently than before.

These ailments demand long-term coping strategies that extend well beyond the teenage years.

The world of work is less welcoming today, even for those with post-secondary qualifications. But only 44 per cent of kids in foster care complete high school and far fewer make it to university.

And by design, foster care is a last resort for children who were already in desperate straits. There are inevitably going to be some disappointments.

It's conceivable that radical change may not be required. Possibly there are some short-term steps that could be taken.

In B.C., children in foster care are kicked out when they reach 19. The arrangement has deep roots. Since Confederation, most provinces have set the age of majority at either 18 or 19, and foster care is built around that definition.

But is this still a reasonable approach? In the general population, more than 50 per cent of Canadians aged 20 to 24 live with their parents. If young folks from stable homes can't go it alone at 19, why assume that foster kids can? Perhaps raising the age limit would help.

And there are few of life's challenges that more money doesn't help. Foster parents receive a base allowance of just over $900 per month to care for a child. The last increase was more than three years ago. So a raise is overdue.

But it's hard to believe that marginal improvements like these will really do the job. A broader rethink may be needed.

The idea behind foster care is that it provides temporary shelter for children whose home life is in flux. Often that means the birth parents are serving a prison sentence, undergoing a detox program or otherwise unable to care for their family. The objective is to bring the children back as soon as practically possible.

But the result is that foster kids bounce to and fro, with little constancy in their lives. And foster parents must steel their minds to the likelihood that the child they have taken in may be removed at any moment. None of this promotes emotional stability.

Of course, these realities are understood. Foster care was designed this way because psychologists believed that even a moderately dysfunctional family home is better than the alternatives. And in some cases, no doubt that's true.

But with so many one-time foster kids living on the streets, is it possible we've carried this doctrine beyond its limits? Perhaps too much weight is placed on keeping birth parents involved, and too little on creating stability for the child.

There are admittedly no easy solutions here. But the status quo is not acceptable.

Foster parents offer what so many troubled youngsters need, and cannot otherwise find - a secure and caring home. Perhaps it's time they had a larger role.