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ABOUT OUR VOICE OUR TURN

In 2010, the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth, Irwin Elman, met with a group of young people through Family and Children's Services of Guelph and Wellington County. They spoke about the child welfare system and offered a number of insightful ideas on what they wanted to see changed or improved. Irwin felt encouraged, but remarked that the issues they encountered and ideas they were proposing were not dissimilar to what he had been hearing since the 1980s. One of the youth paused, then said, “OK buddy, so what are you going to do about it now?”  At that moment, the seeds for Our Voice Our Turn and the Youth Leaving Care Hearings were planted.

Soon after that meeting in Guelph, Irwin invited a group of youth in and from care from across the province to meet. Would they, Irwin asked the 70-plus young people in attendance, be interested in holdings hearings that would mirror the manner in which hearings are held by Members of Provincial Parliament at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. The young people gave their thumbs up. The Office subsequently hired four young people in and from care who, with support from the Office, began to develop and organize the Youth Leaving Care Hearings.

In the wake of this meeting, the Provincial Advocate met with 15 Ontario Ministers and Deputy Ministers, the Secretary of the Cabinet, the Deputy Minister's Council, and many other stakeholder organizations to tell them:

  • Children and youth in care are the responsibility of the entire province through our government
  • Once they leave the care of the provincial government, they do not fare well
  • We can do better

The message from the young people was loud and clear: “All of you have done your best. Now it is our turn.”

The birth of the Youth Leaving Care Hearings

In November 2011, Our Voice Our Turn organized and held the first youth-led public hearings at the Ontario Legislature. The two-day Youth Leaving Care Hearings focused on improving outcomes for youth in and from care and represented a landmark moment in the history of advancing the rights of young people in Ontario. Over the course of the Hearings, 700 people created the opportunity for all Ontario ministries, sectors, the public and young people to have a say in how supports and services could be provided to those in the province’s care.

 

On May 14, 2012, Our Voice Our Turn released a report on the Youth Leaving Care Hearings titled, My REAL Life Book, which was presented to the Ontario Legislature.


MY REAL LIFE BOOK 

My REAL Life Book written by young people and provides deeply personal insights into the care system –  in the words and experiences of youth themselves –  and makes a strong call for fundamental change to the existing child welfare system. The report was accepted by the Minister of Children and Youth Services on behalf of the province and received national and international media attention. Our Voice Our Turn is now a growing movement across the province seeking fundamental change in child welfare.

 

IMPACT OF MY REAL LIFE BOOK

In July 2012, in response to My REAL Life Book, the government established the Youth Leaving Care Working Group. Its mandate was to act on the first recommendation of the My REAL Life Book – to complete an action plan for fundamental change in the child welfare system –  in January 2013, the Youth Leaving Care Working Group submitted their action plan, the Blueprint for Fundamental Change to Ontario's Child Welfare System.

Since that report was released, the following steps have been made to improve outcomes for children in care:
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  • The Ministry of Children and Youth Services has increased the minimum monthly financial support to youth aged 18 to 21 in care from $663 to $850 per month.
  • The Ministry of Children and Youth Services has broadened the eligibility for youth in care to receive Continued Care and Support for Youth formerly Extended Care and Maintenance that will support all youth in care from age 18 to 21 not just those attending school. The program sets goals (e.g. stable housing, a source of income, etc.) for agencies to meet before youth leave care at age 21 years.
  • Ontario Child Benefit Equivalent – this benefit provides increased access to educational, social, cultural and recreational opportunities for all youth up to and inclusive of age 17.
  • Registered Education Savings Plan – the RESP program supports increased educational attainment for youth who have been in the care of CASs. CASs are required to establish RESPs for eligible children in care using funds from the Universal Child Care Benefit. Youth can access the funds to support education related expenses.
  • The Ministry of Children and Youth Services will establish “Accountability Agreements” with all Children’s Aid Society Boards that will establish outcome markers for all children and youth leaving care and require measurement and reporting by Boards each year evaluating agency achievement of these markers.
  • The Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities now provides $500 per month to youth in and from care aged 21 to 25 enrolled in OSAP-eligible postsecondary education and training programs. The Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities has expanded eligibility for youth receiving Extended Care and Maintenance allowance to receive the Ontario Access Grant for Crown wards. The grant covers 50 per cent of tuition, up to $3,000.
  • Ontario Crown Ward Postsecondary application fee reimbursement program covers the cost of college and university application fees for Crown wards and former Crown wards applying for their first college or university program.
  • The Ministry of Children and Youth Services has begun establishing funding possibilities for mentoring opportunities for children and youth in care through partnerships between children's aid societies and community agencies.
  • The Ministry of Children and Youth Services has announced enhanced training for foster parents and group home staff so that they can better support youth as they transition to adulthood.
  • 50 transition workers to support young people as they transition out of care have been funded by the Ministry of Children and Youth Services and hired by community groups across the Province. Workers will provide support and advice on life skills such as money management, job searches, cooking, housing and education.
  • The Ministries of Education and Children and Youth Services have supported the development of mandatory school success protocols between all school boards in the province and their local Children’s Aid Societies.
  • School boards have been invited to submit applications to run pilot programs during the 2013-14 school year that focus on innovative delivery models. The Ministry of Education has funded programs that will improve educational outcomes for secondary school students in the care of, or receiving services from CASs. The Ministry of Education has committed to raising the high school graduation rate of children in care from 44% to the provincial average of 82% within the next five years.
  • Under the leadership of the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities and the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, 29 Ontario colleges and universities have agreed to partner with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to jointly cover 100 per cent of tuition fees (up to a maximum of $6,000 per year, for up to four years) for Crown wards and young people receiving Extended Care and Maintenance
  • Aftercare Benefits Initiative – Administered by OACAS, the program will provide prescription drug, dental and extended health benefits to eligible youth.
  • The Ministry of Health and Long Term Care has ensured that no youth will leave care without a doctor by targeting them as a priority group in their Health Care Connect Program.
  • The Ministry of Natural Resources has piloted youth in care as a priority group in their summer employment programs. The Ministry of Government Services has waived the fee for youth in and from care for an Ontario identification card.
  • The Ministry of Children and Youth services has established a working group with youth and professionals in the field to create a strategy for service to LGBT youth in and from care.
  • The Ministry of Children and Youth Services with the Office of the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth and the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies has begun to develop a process for creating a strategy for creating better outcomes for Black children and youth in care.
  • In January 2013, Our Voice Our Turn received the Children’s Rights Trailblazer Award from the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children in recognition of the Youth Leaving Care Hearings and their original approach to promoting the rights of children and youth.
  • Many in the private and non-governmental sector have created their own initiatives and scholarships for youth in and from care. The Canadian Association of University Women, the Children’s Aid Foundation among many others deserve recognition.
  • In 2013, youth in and from care in New Brunswick held their own hearings and invited youth form Our Voice Our Turn to attend.
  • In February of 2014, the Feathers of Hope: A First Nations Youth Action Plan report was written and released by First Nations Youth in northern Ontario. In the report, youth called for a special First Nations youth forum on child welfare which was held in the spring of 2015.
  • In March 2014, members of the Ontario Legislature voted unanimously to declare May 14 – the day My REAL Life Book was released in 2012 – Children and Youth in Care Day.
  • Our Voice Our Turn has provided training to all youth probation officers in Ontario; as well as to social workers, CAS’s, youth justice facilities, foster parents, Child Youth Workers and youth.
  • As of May 14, 2014, My REAL Life Book has been downloaded more than 230,000 times and hardcopies given to more than 10,000 people. We are not stopping here!

Children and Youth in Care Day

On May 14 2013, Ontario celebrated its first Children and Youth in Care Day.  May 14 was designated as Children and Youth in Care Day in an effort to help raise awareness, reduce stigma and recognize all children and youth in care. The creation of the day was one of six key recommendations made in My REAL Life Book, which resulted from the historic Youth Leaving Care Hearings that called for fundamental change to the child welfare system. May 14 marks the day that My REAL Life Book was released.

Every year since, Our Voice Our Turn has organized an event on May 14 to celebrate children and youth in care and to discuss improvements made to the lives of children and youth in care since those hearings, and offer solutions on actions that still need to be taken by government and service providers.

( Photos of Child and Youth In Care Day Events)

In 2015 and 2016, the Office partnered with the Children’s Aid Foundation to hold the “5-14 This is What Change Looks Like” event.  The event brings a series of dynamic speakers forward who have 15 minutes each to spark new thinking and change.  The Office holds a breakfast to kick off the event with a great speaker.

In 2016, young people in and from care travelled to Queens Park to meet with the Deputy Minister of Children and Youth Services to review the progress that has been made to fundamentally change child welfare.

Searching for Home: Reimagining Residential Care

In February 2016, Our Voice Our Turn released Searching For Home: Reimagining Residential Care. The report, written by staff and two Youth Amplifiers connected with Our Voice Our Turn who traveled across the province over a four-month period, captured the current state of the province’s child welfare system and provided personal stories of young people’s ongoing struggles in the system.

The Bus Ride Home

A member of Our Voice Our Turn once explained the challenges that face “young change-makers in and from care.”  She spoke about the sometimes surreal circumstance she found herself in working for change in child welfare –  being at Ministry meetings, media events, meetings with her peers –  and how strong that made her feel. However, at the end of the day, she would return back to her life which was fraught with difficulty.  “You have to remember the bus ride home,” she told us. Our Office makes a commitment to the young people we work with and the Bus Ride Home.

In 2016, the Advocate’s Office called together leadership at the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies and the Children’s Aid Foundation to explore how to better support young change-makers in and from care.  Our Office began by consulting with those in the child welfare sector about the most commonly and urgently needed support solutions needed by the approximately 20,000 young people currently living in the child welfare system. The “Bus Ride Home” report is the result of those discussions, and outlines seven service, program and resource ideas the young change-makers identified.

Ontario Youth In Care Network

Ontario is one of the few provinces and territories in Canada without an independent youth in care network. 

Networks have been an important point of advocacy and community for youth in and from care.  The Office has partnered with Youth In Care Canada to support the development of an Ontario Youth In Care Network. An Our Voice Our Turn Amplifier is dedicated to seeding this initiative and the hopes are a network will blossom in 2017.

Permanency and Family Project

“Family” and “permanency” are concepts used frequently by those working in the child welfare system.  Rarely times, if ever are young people asked what the concepts mean to them. The Office has partnered with Adopt 4 Life and the Adoption Council of Ontario to support Cheyanne Ratnam, a member of Our Voice Our Turn, to explore these concepts with youth in and from care with a goal of providing pathways to all forms of family.

Quick Facts about Children In Care

Many young people struggle to transition out of the care system without the adequate supports in place. For example:

  • Forty-four per cent of Crown wards drop out of high school, compared to a 81 per cent graduation rate for the general population;
  • An estimated 43 per cent of homeless youth have previous child welfare involvement and 68 per cent have come from foster homes, group homes and/or a youth centre;
  • An estimated 82 per cent of children in care have diagnosed special needs and, while in care, receive health, dental, education and treatment supports.
  • Almost half of children and youth (aged 5 to 17) who live in group and foster homes are on psychotropic medication (“behavioral-altering” drugs).
  • Of all children in care under the age of 18, just over 16 per cent fall into the placement category of “living independently.” In contrast to these 16 and 17 year olds, Canadian youth on average begin to live on their own in their mid-20s.
  • Numerous reports going back to the mid-1980s recognize that youth leaving care are over-represented in the youth justice, mental health and shelter systems.