When foster kids grow up, view from a Canadian system
A large room with “rows of cribs and babies crying” is what Adomas Krivickas remembers most about his childhood in a Lithuanian orphanage in the 1990s.
He knows he was “one of the lucky ones” when he was adopted and brought to Toronto at age 5 by a Canadian couple with Lithuanian roots.
But Krivickas’ inability to fit in at school or at home proved more than his adoptive parents could handle. By age 9, the boy began living in a series of group homes for troubled children.
“I used to steal, I got into so much trouble,” Krivickas, now 22, says ruefully. “But I had seen so many things at young age.”
After he smashed his parents’ van during a midnight joyride when he was 15, child welfare officials got involved and Krivickas became a Crown ward.
For the following three years, he lived with a foster family, where he says he finally had some freedom.
“They don’t lock you up in your room or call the police when you go out for a walk,” Krivickas says, comparing that foster placement to his group home days.
But Children’s Aid Societies in Ontario are not funded to provide foster care beyond age 18. So Krivickas was forced to leave his foster home, the only stable family environment he had ever known.
Most of Ontario’s 9,000 Crown wards are never adopted. In 2009-10, just 993 were placed in permanent homes. The rest, like Krivickas, enter young adulthood without a “forever” family to provide stability, guidance and support.
While roughly half of their peers between the ages of 18 and 24 are still living with their parents, youth “aging out” of foster care don’t have that option.
Canadian and international research shows that between 40 and 60 per cent of these youth end up homeless.
That is what became of Krivickas. A Children’s Aid worker helped him find a room with a small kitchen and shared bathroom.
“But when you are living on your own you kind of go crazy,” he says.
Before long, Krivickas spiraled into homelessness.
Today, the slight, gregarious young man lives at Eva’s Place youth shelter in North York.
Krivickas, like most grown-up Crown wards, didn’t complete high school.
The combination of homelessness and lack of education means the vast majority of them have trouble finding work and rely heavily on welfare. They are more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system, to become parents too early, and to suffer from mental health and substance abuse problems.
Building better bridges to adulthood for Crown wards starts with connecting these youth with permanent families through adoption, advocates say. They are urging Ontario to overhaul the province’s adoption system with a view to doubling the number of adoptions within five years.
Since about 82 per cent of Crown wards in Ontario have special needs, including emotional, learning and developmental disabilities, adoption subsidies to help families give these kids the help and support they need are crucial, they add.
Queen’s Park took a first step this month when it removed legal barriers that have made most Crown wards legally ineligible for adoption. The province is also allowing those who leave the system at age 16 or 17 to return for support until age 21. But more changes are needed.
The Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies says youth in care who are not adopted should be allowed to remain with their foster families until age 21.
Ontario Child Advocate Irwin Elman goes one step further and says they should be allowed to stay in foster care with state support for as long as they want or need to be there.
“If both sides agree, why not just let that connection continue as it does in regular families?” he asks.
When youth leave their foster families, Children’s Aid provides counselling and financial support of about $1,000 per month through the Extended Care Maintenance program until the child turns 21.
But since most former Crown wards turning 21 are not yet settled or finished college or university, child welfare advocates would like to see financial support continue until age 25.
Ekua Asabea Blair sees the results of Ontario’s antiquated child welfare system every day in her job as executive director of the Massey Centre, a residential program for pregnant, at-risk teens that provides health, counselling and support services.
Almost all of the 18 pregnant teens and 25 young moms at the centre are Crown wards or former Crown wards, she says. And now their children are part of the system.
“They come from chaotic and often traumatic backgrounds, they have personal experience with violence and abuse, both they and their infants are at serious risk,” she says.
“Our job is to try to break the cycle,” she adds. “But it is not easy.”
Former Crown ward Natasha Joseph, 20, and her 21-month old son, Christian, are typical Massey Centre residents. When Joseph turns 21 next month, all financial support from Children’s Aid will cease and she will be forced to apply for welfare. She will also have to move into the community to make room for the next pregnant teen needing support.
In the centre’s playroom, as curly-haired Christian bounces off the brightly coloured cushions, Joseph recounts the journey that brought her here.
Children’s Aid removed her from her physically violent single father when she was 7, and she became a Crown ward the following year. Her mother, who was in Canada illegally when Joseph was born, lives in Trinidad. Although Joseph speaks to her mother on the phone, she hasn’t seen her since she left 16 years ago. Her father committed suicide when she was 12.
“Being taken from my father was a really good thing,” she recalls of the terrifying beatings she endured.
For 8 years, until she turned 16, Joseph flourished in her foster family, which was also fostering a younger girl and two teenage boys.
“I had an amazing foster family that treated us like their own kids,” she says. “They took us to New York and Florida. It was great.”
But an incident in Joseph’s foster home that did not involve her meant all of the children had to move. Joseph was placed in another foster home that wasn’t as loving. She couldn’t wait to escape.
By age 18, Joseph was living alone in a basement apartment and soon became pregnant.
“It certainly wasn’t planned,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do (about the pregnancy.) I felt pretty alone.”
No one ever talked to Joseph about adoption when she was growing up. Today she feels certain her first foster family would have adopted her if financial help had been available. And if that had happened, her life probably would have turned out quite differently, she muses.
In the meantime, the Massey Centre is trying to ease the transition into independence for Joseph and the other young women they serve.
A pilot program launched by the centre earlier this year aims to follow Joseph and the other young mothers as they build their lives outside the residence.
Women Supporting Women, a three-year, $195,000 initiative supported by the Trillium Foundation, has so far matched 11 mothers and babies with volunteer mentors who will provide one-on-one support and advocacy.
“These girls are like everybody else,” says Blair. “They need love and acceptance and somebody who has your back, someone who is looking out for you and caring for you.”
Joseph is thrilled to be participating.
“It makes me feel better knowing that I will have somebody to count on when I leave,” says Joseph, who hopes to return to college in the fall to study cosmetology.
Former Crown ward Patricia Benson, who aced high school, attended university and starts a college office administration program next fall, is defying the odds.
But the 21-year-old, who lives in the tiny village of Limoges, northeast of Ottawa, says she couldn’t have done it without the support of the her local Children’s Aid Society.
The society, which is part of Valoris, a multi-service agency for children and adults in the rural Prescott-Russell area, found the funds to continue paying Benson’s foster family when she turned 18. And it has agreed to continue that support until she turns 24.
“I know I am very lucky,” says Benson, who became a Crown ward at age 10 when her alcoholic mother almost killed her while driving drunk.
After living in temporary care and with family members for several years, she moved in with her foster family just before her 15th birthday.
“I have the best parents,” she says of her foster mother and father, whom she calls “Mom” and “Dad.”
“When I came to the family I was very shy. But they helped me break out of my shell,” she says. “They were always there when I needed someone to talk to.”
Benson can’t imagine what would have happened if she had moved out at age 18, just as she was beginning university.
She isn’t ready now, either.
“At 21 most of us aren’t finished school,” she says. “Many people switch (courses and programs) like me.
“Normal parents wouldn’t kick you out at 21 if you weren’t ready. Why should it be any different for us?”
Through her participation in YouthCAN, a provincial organization for current and former Crown wards, Benson has met many youth who have not been so lucky.
“There are a lot of sad stories. So many become homeless and involved in street life. Some will move back into their birth parents’ home, even though it may not be good for them.”
That’s what happened to Krivickas. After several living arrangements with friends fell apart, he moved back home with his adoptive parents at age 19.
Under the old rules — changed last week —that meant Children’s Aid had to close his file.
When an argument with his father escalated into a wrestling match and his father called police, Krivickas had no one to call. He pleaded guilty for assault and was put on probation for a year.
With no financial support from Children’s Aid, no high school diploma and no real job skills, he was forced to live on welfare of less than $600 a month. The shelter system was the only housing he could afford.
But Krivickas is not letting the system defeat him. The avid reader is attending a college-qualifying program at George Brown College, where he hopes to study to become and child and youth worker. He has a line on a basement apartment to share with a friend. And he is looking for work as a manual labourer for the summer.
Over chicken dinner at Swiss Chalet, Krivickas mulls over the pros and cons of adoption for older Crown wards.
“At a certain age, it wouldn’t work,” he says.
He likes the idea of having a mentor or a “life coach.” And he thinks some kind of legal document to formalize the arrangement would be good.
“Some youth may not want a parent,” he says. “But they should have somebody. Right?”