Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness in Canada: Who is Responsible?

This year, I was privileged enough to be part of a team of committed people involved in the production of a policy brief called “Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness in Canada.”

The policy brief is based on the results of the 2016 pan-Canadian study on youth homelessness, “Without a Home: The National Youth Homelessness Survey,” which found 57.8% of youth experiencing homelessness reported some type of involvement with child protection services over their lifetime. Compared to Statistics Canada indicating that 0.3% of the general public receive child welfare services, youth experiencing homelessness are 193 times more likely to report interactions with the child welfare system. This finding should shock people; it suggests that we are falling short of obligation to protect and care for children and youth in Canada. 

Child welfare and youth homelessness in Canada banner
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What’s even more outrageous, given the settler colonial context in Canada, is that Indigenous children and youth are over-represented in both child welfare services and among youth experiencing homelessness. In 2016, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the federal government discriminates against Indigenous children on reserve by failing to provide the same level of child welfare services that exist elsewhere. Both underfunding (levels of support are lower than the provincial average for children in care who are off reserve) and the approach to delivering care have systematically disadvantaged Indigenous children and youth.

Moreover, the survey also showed LGBTQ2S youth and racialized youth are disproportionately represented among young people experiencing homelessness across Canada due to systemic forms of discrimination.

The stark results of last year’s survey are consistent with previous studies conducted in Canada over the last decade. Structurally and systemically, youth-serving institutions and the Canadian government have been unable to ensure all young people living in Canada experience access to justice – that is, experiences of relational fairness in any institutional setting where policy and law are applied or produced. We have been similarly unable to ensure that all young people have access to the basic things they need to survive: nutritious food, clean water, safe and appropriate housing, and timely access to healthcare services, including those required for mental wellness.     

When I was doing the field research for “Youth Work: An institutional ethnography of youth homelessness,” I was shocked to discover how many young people using an Ontario youth shelter had been involved, or were still involved, with the province’s child welfare services. The research suggested that there were insufficient safe and appropriate housing options for adolescent youth in care in some small towns. Once a young person had exhausted the available foster families and group homes designated for youth, there were few options available to the child welfare workers, seeking to ensure the young people in their care were stably housed. In turn, this housing instability often disrupted young people’s access to education and their connections with family and friends.

Over the course of two years of fieldwork, I sought opportunities to collaborate with the local Children’s Aid Society (CAS) agency to do some research for them about young people’s experiences in care, including changes youth would like to see to the delivery of housing supports. I also invited the child protection workers and other local professionals to participate in a professional development opportunities I organized for shelter staff, so that shelter workers could improve their understanding of the institutional and policy organization of other institutional contexts shaping the lives of young people staying at the shelter. Back then, I was a doctoral student desperate to ensure that the research I was doing made some difference to the people who were participating in the project -- youth experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity and the adults seeking to support them.

Since then, I have continued to walk the line between research and policy/practice change, working side-by-side with youth and community organizations to identify problematic policies and practices that contribute to processes of marginalization and exclusion, and then to try to do something about the problems we’ve identified. But it always feels as though this last part remains slightly out of reach. As I also continue to study the ways that knowledge can contribute to social and institutional change processes, I have learned that a certain timeliness or receptivity to an idea is as important as compelling evidence. 

Almost a decade ago, when I was a doctoral student working away on my dissertation research with a youth shelter in a small Ontario town, we did some good things at the local level. But none of them led to wide-scale changes to the institutional policies and processes that background young people’s experiences of homelessness and other forms of exclusion. The conditions weren’t right -- there was no “A Way Home Canada,” a national grassroots movement to end youth homelessness. The “Homeless Hub” and the “Canadian Homelessness Research Network (renamed “Canadian Observatory on Homelessness” in 2012),” were in their infancies. Housing First was not a conceptual or pragmatic shift people were talking much about, and nobody was talking about prevention. A lot has changed since then and not just within the homelessness serving/policy/research sectors, but within the other institutional sectors that influence how/whether people experience housing precarity.

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On July 19th, Ontario released a blueprint for building a new system of licensed residential services for youth titled, “Safe and Caring Places for Children and Youth.” The blueprint is grounded in the experiences and insights of young people who have experienced residential care in this province. It highlights the importance of youth participation in policymaking processes and articulates a plan to ensure all young people receive safe, high-quality, culturally-appropriate residential care services, whether the use of residential services is part of a child welfare care agreement or protection order or because they are detained under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

In 2014, the province of Alberta similarly raised the upper limit of eligibility for accessing The Support and Financial Assistance Agreement, a post-intervention service available to youth after the age of 18, to 24 years old. Since then, there has been an 80% increase in the number of agreements in the province over the last three years. By expanding the scope of eligibility to include more youth, young people have the opportunity to continue to access services and supports as they transition into adulthood.

Improving the quality, stability and appropriateness of housing and other supports for young people in care is an important way that child welfare organizations can contribute to the prevention of youth homelessness at the Primary Prevention level. Primary prevention of youth homelessness means “working upstream" to address structural and systems factors that more broadly contribute to precarious housing and the risk of homelessness for young people. Child welfare organizations can play a significant role in reducing housing precarity and increasing educational and social stability for young people who rely on residential services during adolescence. 

Policy and practice moves to improve access to and experiences of services in Alberta and Ontario also suggest that provinces are paying attention to the ways that institutional practices and policies have contributed to the systemic marginalization of particular groups, and importantly, the role the state can play in rectifying the problems they’ve had a hand in creating. 

Quote from child welfare and youth homelessness policy brief
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I encourage provincial and territorial governments to continue to show leadership in this regard. Involve young people in the policy-making process so as to ensure that the decisions we make about their lives and wellbeing reflect their experiences and knowledge. Young people have critical insights that we are wise to heed. Commit to making a substantive contribution to the prevention of youth homelessness by disrupting the flow of young people from state systems of care into housing precarity; intervening to ensure young people do not lose their housing; and ensuring young people who do experience homelessness are supported to become and remain stably housed. 

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The Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness in Canada: A Proposal for Action outlines clear conceptual shifts that are required in order to work together to sever the links between child welfare involvement and youth homelessness. The conceptual shift that underpins all of the recommendations we make are a commitment to equity and human rights. All young people living in Canada have fundamental rights that are encoded in laws and treaties. Human rights treaties provide a constitutional or legal framework to ensure that all people experience fair and equal access to housing, education, healthcare, work, life, safety, justice, freedom of expression, freedom of movement, and freedom from discrimination.

Moreover, the state is responsible for ensuring all people experience these rights. Given the documented links between child welfare system involvement and youth homelessness, among other social, educational, and health issues experienced by children and youth who have been in state care, we need to ensure that the child welfare system actively supports the equitable inclusion and care of all young people. Research on the disproportionate involvement of Indigenous, racialized and LGBTQ2S youth in child welfare services and among street youth populations reveals systemic patterns of inequality, exclusion, and neglect are evident. Clearly, the state has failed to act on its responsibilities as a human rights protector.

Equality cannot be realized by treating everyone the same way. For equality to be realized, an equitable approach to policy-making and service delivery is required. This means putting the needs and experiences of those the state has failed at the forefront of policy and programmatic decision-making, including within the child welfare system and the youth homelessness sector. Following the release of the "Child Welfare and Youth Homelessness in Canada," The COH and A Way Home plans to follow up with the federal, provincial and territorial leaders. This would ensure there is an ongoing dialogue about the recomendations, allowing the COH and A Way Home to support ongoing policy development that align with the recommendations -- not as outsiders, but as partners. 

See the recommendations made in our proposal at: http://www.homelesshub.ca/childwelfare

Infograph: Ontario's blueprint for building a new system of licensed residential services

Naomi Nichols is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at McGill University. She is also the Principal Investigator for a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) project titled, Schools, Safety, and the Urban Neighbourhood. Prior to joining the Faculty of Education at McGill, Nichols completed a Post-doctoral Fellowship with the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness at York University. The Fellowship focused on knowledge mobilization, research impact, and cross-sectoral responses to youth homelessness. Since completing her Ph.D., Nichols has worked as the Applied Social Scientist in the Learning Institute at the Hospital for Sick Children, a Research Associate and Sessional Instructor in the Faculty of Education at York University and an Adjunct Professor in the Queen’s-Trent Concurrent Education Program. Her research activities and publications span the areas of youth homelessness; youth justice; alternative education and safe schools; inter-organizational relations in the youth sector; “youth at risk;” and community-academic research collaborations. In 2014, the University of Toronto Press published her first book: Youth Work: An institutional ethnography of youth homelessness.

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.